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Posted at 05:30 AM ET, 04/29/2011

KIPP criticizes its college graduation record

Many people, including commenters on this blog, say the people running the KIPP charter school network---the best known and most successful in the country---don’t explain themselves enough. That may be, but KIPP provides more information about its efforts to raise student achievement than any other charter network, or most school districts for that matter.

One example is its report, just released, on how many KIPP graduates have so far graduated from college: “The Promise of College Completion: KIPP’s Early Successes and Challenges.”

The report is a bit of a stretch in terms of KIPP taking credit or blame, since the students surveyed left KIPP more than a decade ago at the end of eighth grade. But KIPP co-founders Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg made preparing kids for college their chief goal when they started the first KIPP middle schools in Houston and the South Bronx in 1995. That is still their main target. They say they are determined to report how that effort is going no matter what statistical qualms they may hear from people like me.

The sample is very small and from the earliest days of KIPP, raising questions about how representative it is of KIPP students now. Only about 200 kids were in the first graduating eighth grade classes at those two schools in 1999 and 2000. But their college graduation rate, compared to similar students who did not go to KIPP, is good---33 percent. This is the portion who graduated from college within six years of leaving high school (or 10 years after leaving eighth grade).

Six years is the standard period for measuring college graduation rates. The KIPP 33 percent rate can be loosely compared to the 30.6 percent of all Americans ages 25 to 29 who have earned at least a four-year college degree and the 8.3 percent of Americans that age who grew up in low-income families and have four-year degrees.

Six-year graduation rates for black or Hispanic students nationally are in the 40 to 47 percent range, but percentage is inflated by the fact that is only of students who enrolled in college. KIPP’s 33 percent is the portion of all KIPP students who graduated from eighth grade a decade ago, including some who have not started college. KIPP officials argue that school districts would do a better job preparing students for college if they measured themselves by that same yardstick.

Eighty-five percent of the KIPP eighth grade graduates in 1999 and 2000 were from low-income families and 95 percent were black or Hispanic---very close to the ethnic and economic profile of KIPP students today.

Feinberg and Levin, in a statement accompanying the report also signed by KIPP Foundation chief executive officer Richard Barth, said they did not think 33 percent was nearly good enough. “We aspire for our students to earn four-year degrees at the same rate as students from the nation’s highest-income families, giving them the same opportunity for self-sufficiency,” they said.

That means, in essence, a graduation rate of about 80 percent. That seems to me both unrealistic (in a good way---as Browning said, a man’s reach should exceed his grasp) and typical of the two co-founders and Barth. I discovered in writing my book about Levin and Feinberg, “Work Hard. Be Nice,” that they started KIPP in their early 20s when neither of them had more than two years teaching experience. Administrators who had no faith in their plan to send thousands of inner city kids to college came close to killing the project several times, but the two teachers survived and saw their network eventually develop a track record and a level of financial and political support unrivaled among American charter schools.

It will be interesting to see what happens next. There are only about 1,100 former KIPP students, often called Kippsters, in college today. In four years that number will reach more than 10,000, the report says. The report said 95 percent of Kippsters graduate from high school and 89 percent enter college. The network has about 27,000 students in 99 schools in 20 states and the District.

KIPP middle schools have produced the greatest gains in achievement averages for low-income children to date, from the 32nd to the 60th percentile in reading and from the 44th to the 82nd percentile in math in four years. The increases appear to be the result of creative approaches by well-led teacher teams who have longer school days—9 hours compared to the usual 6.5 hours—to work with, plus required summer school. KIPP middle schools have tried to place their graduates in challenging high schools, but have begun to open their own high schools in order to strengthen college preparation. They have started several elementary schools so they do not have to wait until fifth grade to raise academic standards.

The organization’s KIPP To College program has attempted to prepare former Kippsters in high school for college, then support and track them once they are there. The report says KIPP has identified five factors that contribute to college success: academic readiness, character strength, the right match of college and student, close ties with groups and faculty at the college, and the ability to understand and adjust to the financial demands of higher education.

The report says KIPP To College intends to increase its activities, and its partnerships with colleges, to meet the growing demand from its students. KIPP is well-known nationally and has close ties to many generous funders, but raising its college graduate rate will be, in my view, the most difficult assignment it has ever given itself. Just keeping track of that many students will be a challenge, as other organizations working with low-income college students have discovered.

Michael L. Lomax, a KIPP national board member who is also president of the United Negro College Fund, said colleges will have to help if this is going to work. “Higher ed has to do more to create student ready colleges, particularly institutional practices that address the needs of first-time college attenders who are increasingly in the pipeline,” he said. “These students will need particularly as they make the transition from high school to college, academic, social and financial supports. These supports need to be in place particularly in the first two years when students are most at risk to drop out.”

I assume KIPP will continue to report its results regularly. We will see what happens. I don’t know of many other projects as interesting, important and perilous as this one.

By  |  05:30 AM ET, 04/29/2011

 
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