What Can Blended Model Schools Do To Increase College Graduation Rates?
Why aren’t more students who graduate from high-performing, no-excuses charters also graduating from college? I know very few people who would answer this question without referencing the work of Carol Dweck, Angela Duckworth, or Paul Tough. This was not the case when KIPP released its College Completion Report in April 2011. I (like many) was surprised to learn that only 33 percent of students who completed a KIPP middle school 10 or more years ago had graduated from a four-year college. I remain impressed by and grateful for KIPP’s transparency, and I recognize that these results are far better than those of most who serve comparable populations, but as a school founder, I am completely unwilling to accept that 2/3 of the kids I’m working with today won’t graduate from a four-year college. I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the importance of non-cognitive skill development for college success and what blended model schools can do to increase college graduation rates.
A year ago, I visited a high-performing charter high school network that proudly promoted the fact that 100% of its graduates attended four-year colleges. The school leader talked about the various ways the school supported students to ensure this unblemished statistic remained intact. When I asked what percentage of these students graduated from four-year universities within six years of graduation, he admitted the number hovered around 40%. I had a theory that the tremendous level of support provided to students at some of the nation’s best charter schools was actually hurting kids when they got to college where they would need to work more independently. I shared this idea. Then I asked if the school would consider a slightly less supportive environment, where only 90% of students were accepted to four-year colleges, but where 60% of those students graduated within six years. His answer was, “no.” Fifty-four out of one hundred students is not ideal, but it is better than forty. So, why the resistance?
In both cases, these high-performing networks are doing an exceptional job of ensuring that students are academically prepared for college. Since the beginning of the charter movement, it has been the mission of many to get as many students into college as possible. We focused on improving SAT scores, academic skills, content knowledge, availability of AP and IB courses, and even parent education around financial aid. Only recently have we begun to ask about college success. Allowing even a single student to “slip through the cracks” is too much for us to accept.
Recently, I had the opportunity to meet Alex Bernadotte, the brilliant founder of Beyond 12, a national nonprofit whose mission is to increase the number of traditionally underserved students who earn a college degree. I asked Alex what she thought about the role non-cognitive skills play in the success of the students served by her organization. Her response surprised me. She didn’t deny the importance of grit, perseverance, and the rest, but she seemed uncomfortable with the idea that the students we serve lacked these skills. Students at Alpha, for example, must contend with violence, drugs, and gangs in their daily lives. They must do more to support their families than most kids their age. In essence, doesn’t the ability to survive (or thrive) in adverse conditions like these indicate the presence of non-cognitive skill development?
These conversations and the lessons learned by these organizations have helped to shape my thinking about education and are a big part of the reason Alpha is focusing on the following approaches to ensure more students graduate from college:
1) Tap into the skills that students have developed at home and in their communities. Learn about your students’ experiences outside of school. Directly teach them about the transferability of these skills. This will not only improve their long-term success, it will also encourage the development of strong relationships between students and teachers.
2) Ensure that students go to college having learned to fend for themselves. They must graduate from high school having struggled and failed. Our students must have learned how to pick themselves up off of the ground. These kids have learned to struggle at home; the same must happen at school. Ideally, before they graduate from high school, they should experience struggle and failure while surrounded by the same community they will be a part of in college. To fail among friends is very different than failing among strangers, especially those whom minority students from low-income communities may see as belonging in college more than they do (however untrue that is).
3) Increase students’ ownership of their education. Students who understand how they learn, who know their strengths and weaknesses, and who have learned how to make good choices about their learning will be far more engaged and successful. To do this well, schools need to hire differently, train differently, assess differently, and improve student access to high-quality achievement data. Educators have to provide enough space for students to make bad decisions but enough support to get them back on track. This level of self-directed learning and access to data are two of the great strengths of blended learning. In this way, blended learning increases student autonomy and agency.
4) Many cars can account for rate of acceleration, speed, road conditions, tire pressure, and many other factors to provide a snapshot of how many miles per gallon of gasoline the driver can expect of his or her vehicle. This, in turn, impacts the way the operator drives. Learning must have a similar gauge. Kids must see, in real time, the impact of their effort and choices. They should know how they are doing relative to others. It should be clear what their goals are and how close they are to attaining them. Rewards for achieving goals will still be important, but the ability to monitor one’s own progress continuously, we believe, will have an even more significant impact on the acceleration of learning. No reliable tool like this exists. Nor are there tools that suggest individualized learning paths like Netflix suggests movies or Pandora suggests music. At Alpha, we are developing low-tech solutions to these challenges while high-tech solutions are created by edtech companies.
5) Educate and empower parents. Students who possess a growth mindset will be far more successful than students who have fixed mindsets. What happens if everyone in the school community praises hard work and progress, but everyone at home praises natural talent and absolute performance? Parents play a big role in their children’s development of non-cognitive skills. If they believe we have their children’s best interests at heart, they will gladly partner with us. But we must engage parents in the discussion.
What would you add to this list? What steps are you taking to ensure more of your students graduate from college?