Writing for The 74, Richard Whitmire explores new data that show charter school students are graduating from college at three- to five-times the national average. Excerpts from his article appear below:
About a decade ago, 15 years into the public charter school movement, a few of the nation’s top charter networks quietly upped the ante on their own strategic goals. No longer was it sufficient to keep students “on track” to college. Nor was it enough to enroll 100 percent of your graduates in colleges.
What mattered, concluded the charter leaders, was getting your students through college – ensuring they earned a four-year bachelor’s degree within six years of graduating from high school.
This is radical — especially given the fact that these networks educate low-income, minority students, whose college graduation rates pale in comparison to their more affluent white peers — a mere 9 percent earning degrees within six years, compared with 77 percent of students from high-income families as of 2015.
We identified nine large charter networks with enough alumni to roughly calculate degree-earning success rates. Below are the reported numbers of students who have earned a four-year college degree within six years of high school graduation.
For the one charter network that tracks students from ninth grade:
- KIPP Public Charter Schools: Across KIPP, a network of more than 200 schools with 80,000 students located in multiple states, 38 percent of the students who graduated from a KIPP middle school, or enrolled in a KIPP high school in ninth grade, are earning college degrees. (This number would certainly be higher — and closer to the rate at Achievement First and Uncommon — save for KIPP’s radical and model honesty policy of starting the graduation clock earlier to catch any high school dropouts.)
For the charter networks that track students from the beginning of 12th grade:
- Uncommon Schools: For the New York–based network, the only alumni who have reached the six-year mark graduated from North Star Academy Charter School in Newark. Of the 142 North Star students who reached the six-year mark, 71 earned four-year degrees: a 50 percent success rate. Based on factors such as rising GPA and SAT scores, Uncommon predicts a rising college success rate. For example, of the 80 students in the class of 2013, half graduated this June with a Bachelor’s degree, four years after leaving high school, and 23 percent are still enrolled in a four-year college. This fall Uncommon will have 570 alumni enrolled in four-year colleges; by 2020 Uncommon will serve 22,000 students in grades K-12 and have about 2,000 college-age high school graduates.
- Achievement First: The network’s first two graduating classes to reach the six-year mark had only 25 and 19 students. For those students, the college graduation rate was 32 percent, a rate they say has risen rapidly. But their subsequent classes, which have not yet graduated college, have far more students and thus can better represent the network’s success. Achievement First, which has schools located in New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island, has 839 students currently in college, 314 of whom are upperclassmen. Of those 314 upperclassmen, 162 fit criteria for being on track to graduation. This places Achievement First’s projected six-year college graduation rate at 52 percent.
- YES Prep Public Schools: For this Houston-based charter network, 46.7 percent of the graduates earned a bachelor’s degree. That number is based on 569 graduates who reached the six-year mark, 266 of whom earned four-year degrees by then.
- IDEA Public Schools: At this Texas-based network, which got its start in the high-poverty Rio Grande Valley, the rate is 35 percent.
- The Noble Network of Charter Schools: Among the many alumni of this Chicago-based network, the six-year degree-earning rate is 31 percent.
- Alliance College-Ready Public Schools: At this Los Angeles–based network, the rate is 25 percent.
- Aspire Public Schools: At this Oakland-based network, where the first graduating class was in 2005, the rate is also 25 percent.
Here’s a taste of what the front runners are learning: High school grade point averages matter far more than expected, and efforts to bolster GPA in high school give students the persistence skills needed to make it through college.
Another key lesson-learned: Like it or not, SAT scores matter a lot — not just in getting admitted, but also in persisting — which means pushing high school juniors into extensive preparation work for the test.
And the bottom line of every charter network: Research which colleges work for their kids, and make sure they go there! Higher-ranked colleges do a far better job seeing their students through to a diploma. (In some cases, that range can be dramatic: 90-plus percent success at an elite college, compared with 15 percent or even lower at non-selective universities.) Thus, college counselors do their best to push students to apply for their “reach” schools. Among the middle-ranked and lower-ranked universities, some do far better than others at ensuring that low-income students win degrees. So, all the charter networks employ aggressive counseling to keep their seniors away from the lesser-rated institutions.
While college-degree-earning rates may be important, the longer-lasting and still barely noticed development here is the declaration by the KIPPs, Uncommons, Achievement Firsts, YES Preps, and other networks across the country that earning college degrees should be the ultimate accountability measure for their high schools.
This is something new — and potentially revolutionary.