KIPP Schools: A Reform Triumph, or Disappointment?

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Bob Daemmrich / Corbis

Seniors wait to get their names called out at a graduation for KIPP Academy of Houston.

A new report being released today will add to the debate about the Knowledge Is Power Program or KIPP schools — a highly influential non-profit network of public schools serving low-income students. The study is important because it's the first large-scale look at the college completion rate for students in schools at the leading edge of today's reform efforts. The results show that while KIPP graduates—who are 95 percent African-American and Latino and overwhelmingly low-income—far outpace the national averages for similar students, they also fall short of the network's own goals: 33 percent of students who completed a KIPP middle school at least 10 years ago have a bachelor's degree today. Among similar students nationwide, just 8 percent have graduated college.

The study has implications for the growing array of schools with missions and methods similar to KIPP because it begs the question: Is 33 percent an enormous achievement given the challenging environments that KIPP operates in? Or, conversely, should KIPP be achieving better results given the intensive support KIPP students receive?

First launched as a middle school program by then-Houston teachers Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin in 1994, KIPP has since grown to 99 schools in 21 states around the country and currently enrolls more than 27,000 students. Bolstered by substantial philanthropic support — KIPP schools collectively raise about $40 million a year and Gap founders Doris and Don Fisher have given $65 million to the network over the last ten years — KIPP now operates elementary, middle, and high schools that all focus on helping low-income students graduate from college. In other words KIPP, which one of my colleagues has helped with leadership recruiting, is basically a midsize school district — albeit one that is not geographically contiguous.

In practice, however, KIPP's mission is different than the average school district. The primary emphasis is on providing an excellent education to students who are too often denied one. But KIPP's leaders are also unabashed in their desire to change expectations about what is possible for low-income students, which is why the program is a political flashpoint. KIPP students go to school for longer days, years, and are exposed to a college-going culture from their first day at school.

As a result, KIPP posts a curve-breaking 95 percent high school graduation rate for students who have completed its middle schools — regardless of where they went to high school — and an 89 percent college matriculation rate. But that data is buried in today's report, because KIPP is focused on students graduating from college. So in addition to its commendable efforts to track and disclose college-going in such detail, KIPP deserves credit for not moving the goal posts on its own targets for success and for owning the outcomes for its graduates regardless of other factors they can't control.

In fact, what's not in today's report is that in addition to the 33 percent of college completers, internal KIPP data show that an additional 19 percent of students are still working toward their four-year degree and 5 percent earned a community college degree. And while the new report only looks at students from at least ten years ago, more recent data is somewhat better. For instance, more recent cohorts from KIPP's New York City schools are completing college at a 46 percent rate. Some high-poverty schools and even some small charter school networks have better numbers but the size of KIPP's network of schools makes their results especially noteworthy.

Kati Haycock, President of the Education Trust, a national advocacy group for low-income students says she, "can't help but be impressed by KIPP's focus on college and its willingness to hold itself to public account for the college graduation rates of its graduates. At best, most K-12 folks report how many of their graduates entered college, but many don't want even to be accountable for that."

So what now? KIPP plans to double down on its efforts. The organization maintains a goal of 75 percent college completion for its graduates, a figure on par with the completion results for more affluent Americans. To help close the gap, KIPP says it will broaden its plans to serve more students in elementary, middle, and high school. "The number one thing we have to own is rigor," KIPP's CEO Richard Barth told me. We need to "start with them earlier and stay with them longer so we can really demonstrate what's possible," Barth says.

KIPP also plans to be more intentional about helping its students get into colleges that have a good track record of graduating first-in-family college goers and low-income students. Just as KIPP demonstrates that intensive support can make an enormous difference for disadvantaged students, the same is true of colleges that make a special effort, so matching students with those schools is an important strategy. KIPP will have 10,000 graduates by 2015, Barth says, "so we need to get ahead of that and find college partners and dig in and say what can you do" to help these students?

Looking at these results, isn't that actually the question everyone in education should be asking? KIPP demonstrates what's possible—at some scale—in highly intentional and effective schools. At the same time, while KIPP's results are a substantial and commendable improvement relative to today's status quo, they're still not enough relative to the elusive goal of an education system that genuinely propels all students to post-secondary success.

That's not a reason to indict KIPP or similarly outperforming schools. Rather, it's a reason to acknowledge that we have to be even more ambitious on behalf of low-income youngsters.