David Levin and Mike Feinberg, co-founders of the KIPP schools, were not the first to conclude that education was key to lifting the next generation out of poverty. But they were among the first to discover and implement an educational formula that seemed to work for at-risk children: long school days, rigorous discipline, carefully selected teachers, and “no excuses.” Since 95 percent of KIPP students are African-American or Hispanic, some admirers even wondered whether the founders were creating a model for radically closing the racial achievement gap.
KIPP’s new report on its college outcomes, released in April, is a long way from dashing these hopes, but it does temper them. The report, “The Promise of College Completion: KIPP’s Early Successes and Challenges,” studied the college outcomes of the earliest of the KIPP students 10 years after graduation. Some of the findings revealed stunning success, especially considering that at that time, KIPP only served middle-schoolers: 95 percent of those first KIPP graduates went on to get their high school diploma. This figure is not only higher than the 83 percent overall U.S. average; it’s also way beyond the 70 percent of students in the bottom-income quartile who earn their high school diploma (or GED), and who come from backgrounds similar to KIPPsters. The numbers of former KIPP students who went on to college were similarly impressive: 89 percent of the KIPP graduates enrolled in higher education, compared with a U.S. average of 62 percent, and just 41 percent of low-income kids.
But the percentage of those actually making it through four years of college? That’s where we need to hold off on the champagne. Only a third of KIPP students actually earned their bachelor’s degree, a far cry from the founders’ original goal of seeing 75 percent of their grads “go to and graduate from college.” With this high a bar in mind, 33 percent is disappointing and, indeed, the report has a poignant, almost self-accusatory, tone. “Reaching that challenging goal has proved even more difficult than we originally thought,” the authors write about their three-quarters aspiration.
The college grad numbers are disappointing, but in fairness to them, Levin and Feinberg are being unusually scrupulous. Most social scientists and policy mavens, who tend to get excited about any “statistically significant” findings, would probably write a far more congratulatory summary than KIPP has done. Even with the high numbers of dropouts, KIPP students still graduate from college at four times the rate of their low-income peers. They even have better success completing a degree than Americans overall, of whom 30 percent graduate. Those are numbers worth touting.
Levin and Feinberg have been expanding the KIPP approach all over the country. The organization now has a fleet of 99 institutions, including elementary and high schools. In 1998, the organization introduced “KIPP To College,” which helps students prepare for SATs and fill out applications (recently, they changed the name to “KIPP Through College,” or KTC). New York has one of the largest KTC sites, offering tutoring, counseling, and a quiet place to study.
The question remains whether KIPP wasn’t overambitious from the start. Feinberg and Levin didn’t simply aspire to outperform schools in the South Bronx or Detroit. They wanted to be as successful as Scarsdale and Grosse Point. They were determined all but to erase the disadvantage of broken families, crime-ridden neighborhoods, and school-avoidant peers. The report doesn’t make clear what the biggest obstacles were for the KIPP students who dropped out. But it does describe the academic preparation and character strengths—“grit,” optimism, self-control, social intelligence—needed to get through four years of college. Can three years of any middle school, even the best of the KIPP brand, accomplish all of that for more than a minority of children? Or does it take six years—middle school plus high school? Or even more?
We won’t know the answer to these questions for a long time. Though KIPP has expanded dramatically and expects to see 10,000 former students in college by 2015, only 1,100 KIPP grads are enrolled right now. Other high-profile charter schools have fallen even shorter from proving their long-term success. Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem’s Promise Academies, featured prominently in last year’s Waiting for Superman, began as an elementary school in 2004 and has only operated a high school since 2008. It will be another five or 10 years before we begin to glimpse the college outcomes for Canada’s graduates.
The sad truth is that, as the KIPP report confirms, Superman isn’t coming.