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.