September 1, 2016

Should K-12 Be About Helping Students Get Into The Middle Class?

By Bellwether

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The post below is by guest blogger Alex Hernandez.


If you want to know what motivates educators working in high-performing, charter public schools, start with the college completion gap between rich and poor students.

Fifty-four percent of students from families in the top income quartile complete a bachelor’s degree by age 24. But only 9% of students from families in the bottom income quartile do the same (Bailey and Dynarski, 2011). In 2015, KIPP reported a 44% college completion rate for its students who finished 8th grade 10+ years ago and a number of other charter networks are hovering in that range. As a reference point, 36% of US adults ages 25 to 34 have a bachelor’s degree.

But now things start getting complicated.

Some portion of students who complete college will be alarmingly underemployed.

Some students will face the double whammy of not completing college and carrying student loan debt.

Some students won’t attend college at all.

In each of these cases, students will struggle to battle their way into the middle class.

The high-performing charter school sector will keep trying to push college completion rates up, but even if completion percentages go up another 10-20% – which would be incredible – the complexities I laid out are still there.

A number of folks, including myself, are beginning to wonder what it would look like to reframe the educational mission from college completion to middle class enfranchisement? That was the subtext of a recent study on Texas charter schools that showed “No Excuses charters schools increase test scores and educational attainment, but have a small and statistically insignificant effect on earnings.”

I don’t know if reframing K-12 education in this way is a good idea. Four-year colleges and universities have plenty of work they need to do with their 60-65% six-year graduation rates (the rates are even worse for students of color) and 2,600:1 career counselor to student ratios. And it seems silly to push kids to “figure it all out” even earlier in life.

But there also seems to be a lot opportunity.

New education organizations are emerging to support low-income students for upward mobility. The nonprofit Braven is building a coaching and support layer for underrepresented students at San Jose State University and Rutgers University to help propel them into strong first jobs. Year Up helps low-income, high school graduates find internships and take relevant post-secondary courses so they can secure full-time work.

But I also wonder how we reorganize K-12 to better position all students for upwardly mobile careers. I can see a wave of school model innovation along these lines. I don’t think schools can be good at everything so this work could lead to interesting new partnerships and approaches.

Students will also benefit from better technology. Valencia College in Florida, considered one of the best community colleges in the nation, offers its students a career coaching portal where they can learn about careers, see which companies offer those job locally, get local salary and employment data, and click straight through to job listings. Boston-based Burning Glass is feeding colleges and universities with sophisticated career data and analytics.

I have a lot more questions than answers right now, but the whole area seems ripe for innovation. Would love to hear others’ thoughts!

[Note: my employer Charter School Growth Fund provides philanthropic support to the KIPP Foundation and various KIPP regions]


Alex Hernandez (@thinkschools) is a partner at Charter School Growth Fund, a nonprofit that supports the growth of the nation’s best public charter schools. He serves on the boards of DSST Public Schools, Ednovate, 4.0 Schools and Rocketship Education. Alex graduated from Claremont McKenna College and has an MBA and Masters of Education from Stanford University. He lives near Boulder, CO with his wife and twin sons and can usually be found on his porch late in the evening playing Mexican folk songs.

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