KIPP Leaders: 4 Critical Areas Secretary DeVos Should Focus on to Ensure All Students Succeed

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This is the third in a series of essays in which policy experts, educators, and journalists discuss their take on top priorities now that U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is on the job. Read the others here.

More than 95 percent of the jobs created since the recession went to people who had completed education or career training after high school. This means that young Americans with only a high school diploma, along with those who never finished high school, have been largely left out of the economic recovery over the past eight years. And the pace of change in the job market — driven by both automation and globalization — shows no signs of slowing down. 

Talent can be found everywhere in America, in small towns and big cities alike. Yet today, affluent American students are eight times as likely to complete a four-year degree as students from low-income backgrounds. It doesn’t have to be this way.

We need to grow opportunities and our economy by investing in the talent that exists in America’s young people. As the leaders of KIPP (Knowledge Is Power Program), a national network of 200 high-performing, nonprofit public charter schools, we have more than 20 years of experience helping students from low-income communities get to and through college. Today, 10,000 KIPP alumni are currently enrolled in college, including more than 100 at the University of Houston and more than 50 at the University of Pennsylvania.

The college graduation rate for KIPP alumni — 88% of whom are eligible for free or reduced-priced lunch — exceeds the college graduation rate of Americans from all walks of life. And the college completion record for KIPP alumni is four times as high as the national average for students from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. We know that with support and high standards, all students are capable of completing college or career training beyond high school.

Now is not the time to back away from big ideas for America. We urge the new administration and Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to focus on four critical opportunities to invest in American talent: 

1. Reward success in higher education. Right now, far too many young people begin college only to drop out before they graduate. From supporting our thousands of KIPP alumni on their journey to earn a college degree, we know that there are dozens of colleges committed to the success of first-generation college students from both rural and urban communities. These colleges are intentionally putting student support systems in place that include career-relevant work opportunities and financial affordability to increase perseverance to graduation. The U.S. Department of Education can help more college students access these supports and complete college by protecting Pell Grants and modernizing work-study guidelines to incorporate and promote career-related internships.

2. Support the bipartisan BRIDGE Act. As public school educators, it is our duty and responsibility to educate all children who enroll in our schools, regardless of their immigration status. That is why we are encouraged by the bipartisan BRIDGE (Bar Removal of Individuals who Dream and Grow our Economy) Act, which would continue protections for those young people who were granted Deferred Action status and — most important — ensure that they can continue to work and study while Congress debates broader immigration legislation. Many of the young people protected under the BRIDGE Act have already made important contributions to our communities and to the economy, and they are poised to keep doing so with continued legal protections. One of the core promises we make to each student who enrolls at KIPP is to provide them with a rigorous public education that prepares them for success in college and life. We want to see all our students achieve their dreams to make our country as strong as it can be, and the passage of the BRIDGE Act can help make this a reality.

3. Highlight states that hold schools accountable for their results. If we are to grow the number of great public schools in America, we must ensure that any school receiving public dollars is held accountable to high standards for academic quality. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) is the federal law that empowers state and local education leaders to develop accountability strategies that address their communities’ unique challenges and needs. As this new law becomes implemented, we hope the Trump administration and the Congress will work together to continue to challenge states to hold a “high bar” when it comes to preparing students for success in the workplace. For example, if the majority of students in a state are deemed proficient in middle school reading and math, but fewer than a third earn a college degree, there are talented kids slipping through the cracks. Or the tests are simply not rigorous enough. The states with high education standards will set their economies up for success in this century. It’s that simple.

4. Continue federal funding for efforts that work. The U.S. Department of Education has long played an important role in funding programs that help schools and students around the country. Secretary DeVos should evaluate the federal programs that are improving student outcomes and expand them to reach more children and educators. Since 2010, the Charter Schools Program’s Replication and Expansion grant competition has supported the growth of 400-plus new, nonprofit charter schools with proven track records of success. This program, which reflects an intersection between government and school choice, should be continued and expanded. In addition, more communities across the country could benefit from the Supporting Effective Educator Development program, which is successfully helping schools recruit and train high-quality public school educators. It is vital that the U.S. Department of Education fund these investments, but not by reducing its historic commitment to special education funding or Title I aid, which supports students from low-income families. One worthwhile investment need not come at the expense of the others.   

Making these changes will take serious, sustained work. But the benefits of getting it right — and the costs of failure — are enormous, both for students and families and for our nation. To secure our economic future, we must make sure that America is truly the land of opportunity for all students.

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