“No excuses’ students struggle in college

“No excuses” charter schools send most or all of their low-income, minority students to college. But do “no excuses” students graduate from college? In Education Next, Robert Pondiscio looks at what charter schools are doing to improve their graduates’ college graduation rates.

KIPP is the largest and best known of a class of charter-management organizations (CMOs) that includes Achievement First, YES Prep, Uncommon Schools, Mastery, Aspire, and others. This group shares a set of familiar characteristics: more and longer school days, with a college preparatory curriculum for all students; strict behavioral and disciplinary codes; and a strong focus on building a common, high-intensity school culture. Classrooms and halls are awash in motivational quotations and college banners, typically from the alma maters of the inevitably young, hard-charging teachers who staff the schools. The signature feature is high behavioral and academic expectations for all students, the vast majority of whom are low-income, urban black and Hispanic kids.

Both KIPP and YES Prep track their graduates and report on how well they’re doing. One third of former KIPP middle schoolers have graduated college within six years — four times the average for disadvantaged students, but way below KIPP’s goals.

Black graduates of YES Prep average 1556 in reading, writing and math on the SAT, “far above the national average of 1273 for African Americans, and significantly higher than the 1500 national average for all students.” All graduates have passed at least one AP class. Less than 5 percent of YES Prep grads require remediation in college. Yet the six-year graduation rate is only 41 percent .

 “It wasn’t the academic piece that was holding our kids back,” notes senior director of college initiatives at YES Prep Donald Kamentz. “What we found hands down was it was the noncognitive piece—that tenacity, that grit—that allowed kids to harness those skills and persist when they faced difficulty.”

“What we’ve found with the ‘whatever it takes’ or ‘no excuses’ mentality is that it was very teacher-driven and less student-driven,” says Kametz, acknowledging this is a controversial line of thought in his own halls. A typical No Excuses approach might involve giving demerits or detention for missed assignments or turning in work that’s not “neat and complete.” Kamentz questions whether this tough-love approach helps create the self-advocacy in students they will need to be successful in college. “It’s the largest gaping hole with our kids in college,” he says. “They will constantly say, ‘You structured my life so much that I had to do very little thinking and structuring myself.’”

The no-excuses charters are trying to develop ways to strengthen students’ perseverance, “growth mindset” and grit. Some send  ”posses” of students to “right-match” colleges that provide mentoring to first-generation-to-college students. (I love Pondiscio’s phrase: “in helicopter parentis.”)

KIPP, which started with middle schools, is adding elementary and high schools to strengthen academic preparation. The network also is following its alumni through college to help them cope with academic and social challenges. Now there are 1,000 KIPP graduates in college. In a few years, there will be 10,000. KIPP hopes to raise the college graduation rate to 75 percent, as high as students from upper-income families. The short-term goal is a 50 percent graduation rate.

No grit, no glory

Only 9 percent of low-income students complete a bachelor’s degree by age 24. American RadioWorks reporter Emily Hanford looks at the importance of Grit, Luck and Money in determining who persists to a degree.

Houston’s YES Prep, a high-performing charter school for low-income minority students, is trying to help first-generation college students cope with challenges and persist to a degree. Even academically strong students have trouble in college, reports Hanford.

. . . at YES, where most of the students are from poor families, close to 70 percent of students score as well on the SAT as students from middle-income families, and they score significantly better than other minority students in America.

Perhaps the most telling statistic is this: Less than 10 percent of YES Prep alumni take remedial classes when they get to college. Nationally, as many as 60 percent of incoming college students have to take some sort of remedial class.

. . .  Based on academic preparation alone, one could reasonably expect that 80 or 90 percent of the students would graduate from college.

But that didn’t happen.

Nearly all YES Prep graduates go to college, usually to four-year institutions. But only 40 percent of students in the class of ’01 completed a college degree in six years, 28 percent dropped out and the rest are still trying to finish.

YES Prep gives students a lot of support to get them ready for college — maybe too much. In college, the support system is gone. Often their parents can’t help.

The school has hired two counselors to work with alumni and created partnerships with several private colleges that can provide counseling and support to first-generation college students.

Grit is as important as intelligence in determining success, believes Angela Lee Duckworth, a middle and high school teacher turned psychology professor.

She defines grit as “sticking with things over the very long term until you master them.” In a paper, she writes that “the gritty individual approaches achievement as a marathon; his or her advantage is stamina.”

Grit can be learned, Duckworth believes.

In honor of Paul Tough’s How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character, I’m making today Grit Day on the blog. Here’s New York Times columnist Joe Nocera on Reading, Math and Grit, a response to Tough’s book. And here’s Tough’s chapter on Duckworth’s research.

A corps of change agents

Teach for America‘s former teachers have formed a powerful corps of education change agents, according to  an Education Next study.

While much of the debate around Teach For America (TFA) in recent years has focused on the effectiveness of its nontraditional recruits in the classroom, the real story is the degree to which TFA has succeeded in producing dynamic, impassioned, and entrepreneurial education leaders.

“ TFA is one among a small cadre of organizations that currently includes New Leaders for New Schools, Education Pioneers, and Teach Plus” that are developing education leaders.  It’s an explicit part of TFA’s mission.

Recently, TFA started a new program, the Social Entrepreneurship Initiative, which explicitly promotes innovation and entrepreneurship in the education sector. The program facilitates connections between alumni interested in starting education ventures with established social entrepreneurs. The initiative supports TFA alumni who are applying for fellowships such as Echoing Green and the Mind Trust, provides tools for developing fundraising plans and grant proposals, and publishes a newsletter that includes information about funding opportunities and management strategies.

The KIPP network,  YES Prep Public Schools, New Schools for New Orleans and The New Teacher Project were founed by TFA alumni.

The study looked at founders of entrepreneurial education organizations. Where did they start?  TFA was the most common answer with fewer leaders coming from San Francisco Public Schools, Newark Public Schools, Chicago Public Schools, AmeriCorps, the White House Fellows program, McKinsey & Company, and the United States Department of Education.  Top managers also came from KIPP, founded by TFA alumni, and from consulting firms and large urban school districts.

It seems clear that explanatory factors include the criteria by which TFA recruits, the organization’s strong and purposive culture, the skills that corps members develop, and the opportunities provided to alumni. Just to take one example, by providing talented young college grads with classroom experience, TFA confers upon them a degree of credibility that opens doors that might open less readily for others.

TFA looks for leadership ability in recruiting new corps members, the study notes. TFA alumni who become education entrepreneurs are more likely to have worked in New York City or the San Francisco area, which have strong entrepreneurial cultures. As education entrepreneurs, they tend to focus on instruction and staffing rather than finance or management.

TFA should be judged not only on whether its recruits continue as teachers but also on the impact of those who leave the classroom, the authors conclude.