Imagine reading the local news to learn how schools in your community stack up against each other. But instead of finding this year’s state test exam results, you could see how many students from each school have graduated from a post-secondary school with a college degree or job skill certificate. This vision for a different measurement of student learning comes from my experience with KIPP, the national network of 183 high performing public charter schools that I co-founded with Dave Levin in 1994. After more than 20 years of work in public K-12 education, I have learned three reasons why I think college and career readiness and program completion are better metrics of our kids’ future success than traditional test scores.
The first is financial: Pure and simple, a college degree is the key dividing line in potential earning for high school graduates in the United States. On average, Americans with a college degree earn 98 percent more an hour compared to those without a degree, according to a 2013 Labor Department study. This increase translates into a million dollars more in lifetime earnings, on average, per graduate.
The second is philosophical: focusing on college and career program completion gives teachers and administrators a long-term view of their goals for student learning, rather than solely focusing on the one-year results that come through a one day, two-hour snapshot of learning via standardized testing. This one-year focus causes schools to throw a party and confetti falls from the ceiling just because a group of 4th graders passed a reading test—as if that was the end goal. At KIPP, we track college completion starting with our 8th graders because we believe this measure is key to knowing whether we are truly fulfilling our mandate to set students up for lives of choice and opportunity. And while college might not be for every student, the skills required to attend college certainly are there to ensure maximum freedom in what to do in life–not just when a person is 20, but also at 30, 40, 50, and beyond. As a KIPP school leader, I have seen that, when we as educators shift our sights to the long view, we focus on the deeper skills and learning that will help ensure students succeed throughout their lives.
The third is about school culture: a commitment to college and career program completion requires a shift from top-down school leadership to empowering teachers to prepare their students to thrive in future grade levels and beyond K12 as well. We know that students need both academic and character skills to prepare them for college, careers, and choice-filled lives. The only way to deliver these skills in a place where children spend most of their waking hours is to provide great teaching and more of it. In KIPP schools, our leaders are committed to giving teachers autonomy, while also providing feedback to help them grow and improve.
KIPP’s long-term game plan is not just about hiring great talent to sustain a strong school culture; it’s also about what we are doing to keep them here. Using our “Healthy Schools and Regions Survey,” KIPP leaders measure staff satisfaction and identify what teachers need to feel motivated, whether it’s recognition, family-friendly hours, financial incentives, or mentoring. KIPP school leaders are connected to what their staff needs because many come to the role after working in KIPP schools as teachers, which supports the development of the adults in our schools so they can continue supporting our students.
With only nine percent of students from low income families completing college by their late 20s, we know that getting our students all the way to the finish line requires sustained support and encouragement, even after leaving KIPP schools. That is why we created KIPP Through College, which helps KIPP students navigate the social, academic, and financial challenges of college. We also have formed more than 70 college partnerships across the country to increase on-campus support for students, with various institutions of higher education such as Duke University, San Jose State, Spelman College, Franklin and Marshall College, and my alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania.
The results show that KIPP is making a difference: KIPP students are completing college at a rate at more than four times higher than for their peers from similar economic backgrounds.
Andrew Grove, one of the founders of Intel, said it best: If you want something done, measure it. KIPP has seen the power of measuring how well our students progress to and through college and into their careers. We hope other schools and districts will be inspired to shift their focus in the classroom from one-year results to setting children on a path towards lifelong success.