First Person

How KIPP learned the truth about its students’ college completion and inspired others to do the same

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
KIPP co-founder Dave Levin

Over the last several years, many well known networks of charter schools have expanded their challenge. Getting poor students to college isn’t enough, they realized — those students need a lot of support if they are to graduate, too. 

Back in 2011, KIPP came to this realization more publicly than most. Author and charter-school fan Richard Whitmire explains what happened in this excerpt from his new book, “The Founders.”

Most people think the story of KIPP charter schools is a story about two guys in Houston, Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, launching a network of high-performing charter schools that today includes 183 schools educating 70,000 students. They’re right; it’s a great story, one told well in Jay Mathews’s book “Work Hard. Be Nice.”

I won’t retell that story here. Instead, I will argue that KIPP’s other story, its research, is every bit as influential as the charter network itself. That research is thorough and unsparing and has affected nearly every school in America, traditional and charter. I will focus on a single piece of research, the College Completion Report, one that proved somewhat unflattering to KIPP in the short run but also one that continues to have positive long-term benefits for both KIPP and other charter networks in increasing overall college completion rates.

The College Completion Report was unveiled in late April 2011 and hit with a very hard thud — and not just in KIPP-world. There was some promising news: 31 percent of early-generation KIPP middle school students graduated from (four-year) colleges within six years, which at that point in time was three times the graduation rate for low-income, minority students nationally.

The problem was that the graduation rate fell far short of what high-achieving charters like KIPP thought they could accomplish (and predicted they would achieve), which is closer to 75 percent. The headline written by Jay Mathews when he wrote about the report in The Washington Post: “KIPP criticizes its college graduation record.”

At the time the report came out, KIPP was already well on its way to reshaping its approach for making sure its graduates not only got into college but also graduated from college. That’s an interesting story I’ll tell shortly. But the significance of the report went well beyond KIPP’s internal changes.

In this report, KIPP threw down three data gauntlets and dared others to follow. First, KIPP reported its college completion statistics by tracking students all the way from eighth grade. Traditionally, schools just tracked from the senior year, conveniently ignoring all the students who dropped out between eighth and 12th grades. Better public relations, of course, but what about all those dropouts? If your program succeeded only by losing the less successful kids, then was your program truly successful?

Second, KIPP reported its college statistics based on which students actually graduated. Still today, scores of schools report only the percent accepted to college. Sure, the latter strategy makes you look better, but how honest is that? If you get your students accepted but don’t prepare them to succeed in college, then is your program truly successful? I can only imagine the gasps and red faces around the country when charter school boards met to discuss their “100 percent accepted” claims: Should we really be doing this without saying how many actually make it through college to earn a degree? Seeing schools issue those 100 percent claims “drives me crazy,” KIPP CEO Richard Barth told me. And it should.

Third, KIPP made all its findings public. Considering that KIPP’s college track record fell short, that was pretty brave. They could have kept it quiet. But as Barth puts it, you shouldn’t maintain two stories — a blunt story for internal consumption and a cheery one for the general public. Will others be brave enough to make their internal studies public?

And, given that KIPP was first out of the blocks with full disclosure, the next question was: What’s KIPP going to do about it?

The two-part solution called for next-generation learning which focuses on students directing their own learning (thus developing grit) and bringing intense support networks to college campuses, thus giving poor kids the kind of backing that middle-class college students take for granted. KIPP’s “character counts” program — a chart I’ve seen posted outside KIPP classrooms — is just one example. Teachers are reminded of the seven “strengths” that need development along with math and reading skills: zest, grit, optimism, self-control, gratitude, social intelligence and curiosity.

Perhaps the most dramatic change KIPP made as a result of that research is its College Match program. A big factor in why some KIPP students earned a degree and others didn’t was the college they chose. “We began to realize that where you go to college really matters,” said Barth. “Like, it is absolutely life-changing. We were watching what happened to our 12th-graders when they went to college, and we learned that at each level of selectivity — competitive, highly competitive — some colleges are better at graduating first-generation college-goers than others.”

The result: a network of about 80 colleges that want to work with KIPP. The next task was to make sure KIPP graduates found their way to those KIPP-friendly places. The answer: intense guidance. Three years ago, only about one in 10 KIPP graduates enrolled at the best colleges for them; today, it is about one in four. That’s a rapid change. The colleges that are good for KIPP students run the full gamut of selectivity. In 2016 KIPP had about 40 students at the Ivy League’s University of Pennsylvania, home to the “grit” researchers. An additional 35 attended Pennsylvania’s Franklin & Marshall College.

“What are these folks doing?” asks Barth. “First they are looking at our KIPPsters and seeing immense potential. Second, they’re looking into the world of these students and seeing how they can optimize their financial packages so the students can cover what is needed and not end up with extreme levels of personal debt. Three, these are campuses where our kids are socializing, where they can be involved in campus activities.”

Barth credits F&M president Daniel Porterfield with making what he describes as “potentially third-rail” decisions to make his college more welcoming to first-generation students. “He has made the case with his board that in doing this, the student body will be higher-performing; there will be more fellowships, more Fulbright winners. That’s a remarkable example of what can be done. We’re looking for other partners who have that level of commitment.”

What KIPP learned in getting poor and minority students into colleges that succeed with first-generation students was quickly passed along to both charters and traditional districts. In Arkansas’s Delta, for example, a place where students almost never made it to the University of Arkansas, a KIPP collaboration with counselors at local schools there changed that pattern.

Amy Charpentier, the director for KIPP Through College at KIPP Delta, supervises two college counselors at Central High and one counselor at Lee High, whose positions are funded through a grant KIPP Delta received from the Walton Family Foundation. The results to date: Last year, the partnership more than doubled the four-year college-going rates for seniors at Central High School and increased the four-year college-going rates by nearly half for seniors at Lee High School.

Relations between charters and district schools are always delicate, but in this case the principals and superintendents agreed their students weren’t getting the college guidance they deserved and agreed to the KIPP counselors coming to their schools, said Charpentier.

Barth said he just got a similar collaboration request from the superintendent of Philadelphia’s schools. “There’s nothing we’re doing with counseling that’s proprietary,” said Barth, who said he was open to more collaborations. “We’re at a place where it’s sharable, and the more first-generation kids who can get this kind of guidance, the better.”

Adapted from “The Founders,” published by The 74 Million, an education news and opinion website whose founders support charter schools.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

First Person

I’ve spent years studying the link between SHSAT scores and student success. The test doesn’t tell you as much as you might think.

PHOTO: Photo by Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Proponents of New York City’s specialized high school exam, the test the mayor wants to scrap in favor of a new admissions system, defend it as meritocratic. Opponents contend that when used without consideration of school grades or other factors, it’s an inappropriate metric.

One thing that’s been clear for decades about the exam, now used to admit students to eight top high schools, is that it matters a great deal.

Students admitted may not only receive a superior education, but also access to elite colleges and eventually to better employment. That system has also led to an under-representation of Hispanic students, black students, and girls.

As a doctoral student at The Graduate Center of the City University of New York in 2015, and in the years after I received my Ph.D., I have tried to understand how meritocratic the process really is.

First, that requires defining merit. Only New York City defines it as the score on a single test — other cities’ selective high schools use multiple measures, as do top colleges. There are certainly other potential criteria, such as artistic achievement or citizenship.

However, when merit is defined as achievement in school, the question of whether the test is meritocratic is an empirical question that can be answered with data.

To do that, I used SHSAT scores for nearly 28,000 students and school grades for all public school students in the city. (To be clear, the city changed the SHSAT itself somewhat last year; my analysis used scores on the earlier version.)

My analysis makes clear that the SHSAT does measure an ability that contributes to some extent to success in high school. Specifically, a SHSAT score predicts 20 percent of the variability in freshman grade-point average among all public school students who took the exam. Students with extremely high SHSAT scores (greater than 650) generally also had high grades when they reached a specialized school.

However, for the vast majority of students who were admitted with lower SHSAT scores, from 486 to 600, freshman grade point averages ranged widely — from around 50 to 100. That indicates that the SHSAT was a very imprecise predictor of future success for students who scored near the cutoffs.

Course grades earned in the seventh grade, in contrast, predicted 44 percent of the variability in freshman year grades, making it a far better admissions criterion than SHSAT score, at least for students near the score cutoffs.

It’s not surprising that a standardized test does not predict as well as past school performance. The SHSAT represents a two and a half hour sample of a limited range of skills and knowledge. In contrast, middle-school grades reflect a full year of student performance across the full range of academic subjects.

Furthermore, an exam which relies almost exclusively on one method of assessment, multiple choice questions, may fail to measure abilities that are revealed by the variety of assessment methods that go into course grades. Additionally, middle school grades may capture something important that the SHSAT fails to capture: long-term motivation.

Based on his current plan, Mayor de Blasio seems to be pointed in the right direction. His focus on middle school grades and the Discovery Program, which admits students with scores below the cutoff, is well supported by the data.

In the cohort I looked at, five of the eight schools admitted some students with scores below the cutoff. The sample sizes were too small at four of them to make meaningful comparisons with regularly admitted students. But at Brooklyn Technical High School, the performance of the 35 Discovery Program students was equal to that of other students. Freshman year grade point averages for the two groups were essentially identical: 86.6 versus 86.7.

My research leads me to believe that it might be reasonable to admit a certain percentage of the students with extremely high SHSAT scores — over 600, where the exam is a good predictor —and admit the remainder using a combined index of seventh grade GPA and SHSAT scores.

When I used that formula to simulate admissions, diversity increased, somewhat. An additional 40 black students, 209 Hispanic students, and 205 white students would have been admitted, as well as an additional 716 girls. It’s worth pointing out that in my simulation, Asian students would still constitute the largest segment of students (49 percent) and would be admitted in numbers far exceeding their proportion of applicants.

Because middle school grades are better than test scores at predicting high school achievement, their use in the admissions process should not in any way dilute the quality of the admitted class, and could not be seen as discriminating against Asian students.

The success of the Discovery students should allay some of the concerns about the ability of students with SHSAT scores below the cutoffs. There is no guarantee that similar results would be achieved in an expanded Discovery Program. But this finding certainly warrants larger-scale trials.

With consideration of additional criteria, it may be possible to select a group of students who will be more representative of the community the school system serves — and the pool of students who apply — without sacrificing the quality for which New York City’s specialized high schools are so justifiably famous.

Jon Taylor is a research analyst at Hunter College analyzing student success and retention.