The grades are in: Charter schools are boosting college success
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Most big changes in society take place slowly, and that’s probably for the best. But here’s a change that members of Congress should urge their state education leaders to act on quickly: Start collaborating with top charter networks on college success.

For years now traditional school districts and teachers unions offered up reasonable-sounding excuses for not reaching out to charter schools to share lessons on what works best in the classroom.

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Maybe, the reasoning goes, the high performing charter school networks fared better with disadvantaged students because of “self selection,” where only the most motivated parents enter the charter school admission lotteries. Another rationale: Who cares if the charters produce better test scores? That’s probably a result of unhealthy test prep and matters little for the students’ futures.

Those excuses crumbled last week with the revelation that the major charter networks are achieving what has long been a holy grail in education: sharply boosting the college success rate for low-income, marginalized students — the very students this country has been failing for decades.

As our research project at The Alumni reveals, the alumni of the big charter networks including KIPP, Uncommon Schools and YES Prep are earning four-year degrees at rates as high as five times as their counterparts in traditional schools. Even the lower performing networks produce college graduates at twice the rate.

Nationally, only 9 percent of the students growing up in families in the lowest income quartile end up with college degrees (compared to nearly 80 percent of the students from the high income families) by age 24. And yet in places such as  Uncommon Schools in Newark, the North Star Academy Charter School draws students from that city’s high poverty neighborhoods and turns half of them into earners of four-year college degrees. At KIPP Public Charter Schools in New York, 46 percent earn those degrees. At YES Prep in Houston, 47 percent end up with four-year degrees within six years of leaving a YES Prep high school.

Even more compelling: Based on the current crop of alumni from these networks moving through college, it appears those rates will only rise. According to the school’s data, a record number of their alumni are on track to graduate within four years, pushing the six-year mark, the usual way of measuring college success, into even higher territory.

The civil rights implications here are profound. No other kind of intervention to help marginalized students has succeeded at these kinds of rates.

The charter networks are eager to share how they are doing it. After visiting and profiling nine big charter networks, we found some common strategies for their success:

Helping students boost their high school GPA matters far more than thought. Here’s what Uncommon charters discovered: Students with GPA’s of 3.0 or better are four times more likely to earn college degrees. As it turns out, the skills learned boosting GPA that are the same skills those students will need to succeed in college. Same goes for boosting SAT scores; it’s not just a number that loses meaning when the student enters college.

Boosting the rigor of high school courses isn’t enough. These courses have to be taught in ways that are “sticky” for all students, not just the top students. That’s another lesson pioneered by Uncommon. When students are exposed to a new piece of literature, for example, have them write about it first, discuss later. That way the teacher knows if the student truly understood it, rather than just parroting what the top students said in discussions.

Sending your graduates to the right higher education institutions means everything. To an African American high school senior, the University of North Carolina at Greensboro may look a lot like Youngstown State University, but the former is by far the better place for you.

That’s just a taste of what they’ve learned, and some networks are willing to share more than lessons-learned. In the Arkansas Delta, KIPP shares college counseling resources with two neighboring high schools.

Some of the most promising are the digital innovations underway at several of the networks. As the number of charter school alumni expands exponentially, keeping track of them the old fashioned way, personal contact, will prove to be near impossible — a dilemma traditional high schools already face should they take on this task.

But what if you could devise software programs designed to reach alumni at just the right moment — time to register, time to check on your financial aid, time to withdraw from a class you’re likely to fail — in ways they will pay attention (read: texts)? Those programs are just beginning to roll out from the charters, on an experimental basis. After their final tweaks, the likelihood of charter networks sharing them is high.

So, there’s lots to share here. All the charter networks need are willing partners.

One of the criticisms of charter schools over the years is that they never fulfilled their role as experimental laboratories for traditional schools. In truth, for the most part the only inside information the districts and teachers unions sought from charters was a way to shut them down.

But I’ve been studying charter networks for several years now, and I see little bitterness or discouragement in their attitudes about wanting to share. They’re like Labradors— insults get forgotten in seconds and affection is quickly re-sought.

Even the most belligerent of the charter networks — I’m thinking Success Academies in New York City, where founder Eva Moskowitz famously carries on a feud with Mayor de Blasio and the unions — is reaching out with lessons-learned.

And in Boston, Brooke Charters appears to hold no grudge at the state voters who recently rejected an initiative to allow charters there to expand.

All of that adds up to the obvious conclusion: Change needs to happen here quickly. The unexpected college success rates of the major charter networks puts all the pressure on traditional school districts: What possible excuse do they have  for not cooperating?

Maybe local superintendents, state education commissioners and state higher education leaders need a nudge to make it happen. No better pulpit for nudging than the pulpit owned by House and Senate members.

Richard Whitmire, writer of The Alumni series now running on The 74, non-profit news site covering education in America, is author ofThe Founders: Inside the revolution to invent (and reinvent) America’s best charter schools.”


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.