Passion, purpose, and plan: Guiding students toward success at work

ByBill Kerr and Joe Fuller (Podcast)

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The largest charter school network in the US, KIPP, is preparing young people, K–12, to lead what CEO Richard Barth calls “choice-filled lives.” This starts with teaching both academic skills and “soft skills” that are crucial for success at work and continues with proper guidance about the different paths towards a successful career. Hear why Barth is bullish on how the future of schools is gearing up to connect students to employers and a lifetime of employment. Link to transcript.


Joe Fuller:It is widely accepted that the US education system is outdated and hidebound. Students across the country are being inadequately prepared for work and are often guided down paths that don’t lead to economic independence. For disadvantaged youth, those problems are even more pronounced. That a large percentage of the talent pool lacks necessary skills represents a fundamental challenge to US businesses that face difficulty in filling critical jobs.

Welcome to the Managing the Future of Work podcast. I’m your host, Harvard Business School professor and visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, Joe Fuller. Today I’m speaking with Richard Barth, CEO of America’s largest charter school network, the Knowledge is Power Program, or KIPP, a rare innovator in the K–12 education space. Richard will discuss how KIPP works to prepare disadvantaged youth both for college matriculation and for entering the workforce.

Well, welcome, Richard, and thanks for joining us on the Managing the Future of Work podcast.

Richard Barth:Thank you, Joe.

Fuller:You’re the CEO of KIPP Schools, which most of our listeners are going to know as the largest charter school network in the United States—over 200 schools now, if I’m not mistaken, 100,000-plus students. That would make you a top 15 school district?

Barth:Top 20.

Fuller:Top 20? So you’d be almost double Boston’s size. Decidedly bigger than Denver’s, where I was just visiting last week. And Nashville’s. Lots of big cities. You’re running a big, but geographically dispersed, school district. I think of KIPP’s historical mission, Richard, as one where you’ve emphasized college matriculation, preparation for higher ed. But you’ve been expanding the definition of what you’re trying to accomplish with your students. Why is that? And what motivated it?

Barth:It’s a question I get a lot, Joe. And I think the best way to start is just to say, even from our earliest days, KIPP has been about preparing young people to lead choice-filled lives. And that quest has led us to move from being a network that was about just middle schools to a K–12 network. And it’s also led us to be a network that was focused on college, because we saw it as the best proxy to leading a choice-filled life, understanding more broadly that it’s not just about college, but it’s about preparing yourself to leave with a clear purpose, passion, and plan. Certainly, we’re incredibly supportive of college—the right college, the right program, at the right cost. But we also know that there’s more out there, and the economy has evolved, and we want to make sure we’re preparing our young kids for success, whatever path they take.

Fuller:As you think about students preparing that plan and preparing them differently for this economy, how’s that expanding your charge? How do you see what you’re trying to expose them too, educate them in, as opposed to strictly getting them ready for post-secondary education seamlessly out of a KIPP High School?

Barth:So I think there are some things that are just unchanged, and I think people who run organizations that are hiring young people would say this. We need to ensure our KIPPsters have core foundational academic skills. That is unchanged. One of the great myths out there would be, oh, you can do a lot of jobs and not have these core foundational academic skills. We need our KIPPsters—and that’s what we call our kids—to leave us with really strong core math skills, literacy skills. We’ve also understood from their earliest days that they need to have what people today would call soft skills, power skills, the ability to plan, the ability to work in a team, the ability to manage their time. Our schools have always been about that, and I just want to emphasize that that’s been a quest we’ve been on for 20 years.

What I think is evolving, and particularly as we look at our high school years, is we’re beginning to understand that too many of our kids could leave us, even if they were going to college, without that clarity of purpose of why they’re going on to pursue a BA degree, what they’re hoping to get out of it, how it fits into that choice-filled life. I think the biggest evolution our high schools over the next few years is making sure between 9th and 12th grade, you’ll see KIPPsters really going through a journey of understanding who are they, what do they like to do, what are they good at. And, of course, we’re still doing preparation, AP rigorous classes, ACT exams. But we want our seniors to leave us with that clarity. And that’s going to be an evolution in content and curriculum and what advisory looks like in our schools.

Fuller:Let’s unpack that a little bit. You mention soft skills, and my research indicates that a soft-skills deficit—and I confess, I don’t like the term “soft skills,” because I always hear that as “easy,” “anybody should be able to do it,” and “these are very, very fundamental.” And they’re ones that are “off the drive, experientially, and by witnessing them,” as opposed to a hard skill that you can learn just by applying yourself. Are you consciously teaching soft skills? Do you think that’s something that can be taught, or is it just the surround of a KIPP School, and the expectations you have for your kids, and the way they interact with the adults in the school?

Barth:I’d like to think that one of the things that KIPP has done from our beginnings is recognize that what we call “soft skills” today are core to being able to lead a successful life: the ability to self-manage; the ability to set goals; the ability to work alongside others and not be simply focused on what you’re trying to accomplish. These are skills that, when you sit with employers, they want this in the people they’re hiring. We didn’t do it for that reason. It was our understanding, if you want to be a productive contributing adult, these were things we believe were really important—along with learning your math and reading skills and understanding the world. So, I think it’s always been there. I’d say the part that we’re getting more explicit about is, I think, people are beginning to think about how they can design within the content opportunities to build those skills in ways that are even better than they’re used to. If just look at, for example, the sciences or history, there are opportunities to work in groups and teams on projects that maybe 10, 15 years ago, people weren’t as focused on. Today people would say, “Well, how are we giving 10th and 11th graders a chance to show their work as a collective or individually?” So I think there’s greater consciousness of it, more intentionality. But I want to also—because I think it’s really important, because people can say, “OK, is this about creating a whole separate set of curriculum that is independent of core content?” And I think it’s important for people to recognize, you can do a lot of—like, teaching statistics doesn’t mean you can’t actually be also getting at soft skills in them. And if your teachers are always thinking you need to be something different, I actually think it could be a much more difficult proposition if you’ll say, “How are we going to find the time to teach soft skills?” Well, you can do it on the football team, you can do it in statistics, you can do it in your history class.

Fuller:Our research is that the number one reason that young people fail in their first or second job is a soft-skills deficit. It’s much easier to validate that someone has a hard skill, either by checking that they did graduate from that program and have that certificate or have that professional credential. It’s very, very hard in an interview and looking at a resume to know if someone can deal with negative feedback from a supervisor they’ve just met, or suddenly be productive with a stranger that they’re thrown together with to deal with an urgent task. I want to come back to something else you said, Richard, about causing our kids to understand that there’s more than one path or there are alternative paths. One observation I’ve had and see consistently around the country is, there’s a universal American meme that you got to go to college to make it in America. How do you make it discussable with your students, their parents, and even your teachers that there are alternative paths that can get to that productive household-sustaining position in life but doesn’t happen to have a degree attached with it?

Barth:I think in our case, we’re going to discover that it’s part of the next natural evolution in the way we think about our work. It’s so important to me to always say this. This discussion isn’t about being against college. So I think that’s first, to make it very clear to people. Still for the majority of our kids, going to the right college, the right program of study, at the right cost is their best path, or certainly a really good one. But we’re also discovering not enough of our kids, whether they go to college or not, are understanding what is the right course of study? What is going to lead them to the work they want to do at the right cost? So I think we’re in the beginning days, Joe, of having conversations where last year we had 2,000 juniors across the country take this assessment. It’s a YouScience assessment—that’s a plug for the company that makes it. It’s the first time we’ve ever had our juniors actually take an assessment that’s with aptitude and interest, and it helps them understand who they are, what they like to do. They love it.

Fuller:So this test is assessing their strengths? Does it in some way correlate to their academic performance as well, or is it just built into the instrument?

Barth:It’s built into the instrument. They’re looking at aptitude and strength and interest. Then we know, obviously, their GPA, and their other test scores. And it begins a dialogue that says, “OK, who do you want to be? What are you discovering about yourself?” And then you begin to understand what are the opportunities out there in the world? When you think about that work in that way, you’re a 16 year old and you’re saying, “What are the ways I could express myself when I leave here?” How much do you make? What kind of money do you make doing different things? Then the question becomes, “OK, let’s look at college. How does it fit in? Does it fit in?” That’s a very different conversation than just saying, “It’s college or not.” And so I think we have to start by saying we could do a better job for our 16, 17, 18 year olds to really understand who they are, what they want to do. For many of them, the right program for them will be a BA program. For some, there may be a right program inside a community college that’s connected to an employer. And for others, it could be the military. What we want to make sure is that they feel like they’re really equipped to make the choice based on a better understanding of who they are, and also to understand the content they’re going to need to master to be successful at it. That’s I think, the way we get out of this.

Fuller:Let’s come back to something else you said that I was interested in. Our research here indicates something that you alluded to, which is that there are a lot of combinations of schools and fields of study or concentration that almost always lead to a very low earning capacity or low anticipated career income. Kids have very, very limited visibility into that. There isn’t data available that says that studying marketing but not digital marketing in essentially an open enrollment four-year school does not correlate to a marketing career that’s going to generate an income that facilitates family formation and economic independence. Whereas taking a bookkeeping and accounting course in a community college, getting an associate’s degree in that, almost always leads to a good … How do we bridge that gap? How do we make that data more accessible to people and influence the type of choices they’re making as juniors in a KIPP High School today?

Barth:First, let me say, I’m so excited about what you’re describing. I think this is what the future holds. We’re going to be able to do this well. And we’re already getting pretty good at it at KIPP, but I think the next five years, you’re going to see us get exceptional. We now know, in the last five years, we figured out that not all colleges are the same. We figured out that you could get into two colleges, same level of selectivity, and one of them is successful at graduating first-generation college kids and one is not. We are data driven. So if you’re now a junior or senior at KIPP, and you’re applying to college, you have your GPA, you have your ACT score. Our system inside KIPP actually produces for you your junior year your first wish list. And you sit down, Joe, in your state with your counselor who cares about you and you say, “OK, this is this wish list.” And it’s already based on cost, your odds of admissibility to different campuses, and the success rate of those institutions. That’s happening at KIPP already. And we have been able to dramatically improve our college completion rates.

Fuller:How do you define success? Is it degree completion or-


Fuller:… the outcomes after that?

Barth:Right now, it’s just degree completion. We can talk about … I think that’s, like, what you’re getting at, is the exciting future. So right now, what we can say is, within your state system, oftentimes you can get into two schools that might cost you the same and one graduate gets to 10 or 15 points higher. There’s no reason that should not be part of your informed discussion. As a young person, look, you as an individual can choose to override that data, but we want you to start armed with that information when you make your choice, including understanding, again, the cost of where you’re going. What were headed to, I think, Joe, over the next 5 to 10 years, is really a shift from thinking about it purely as a college choice to a program choice. And I think, over time, that choice of program or course of study will be inside four-year degrees, inside two years, or independent of them. Today, in New York City, a young person might say, “I really like numbers.” You might have these discussions over time, and you discover there’s great accounting majors out there. “Where should I do it?” Well, Baruch has got a great accounting program. This is their track record of success with accounting majors, and we can tell you not just go to college, we can tell you here’s the major. We can even tell you which campuses inside the city college system are producing the best outcomes for your major. That is a level of precision that was not even dreamed of 10 years ago. So, imagine in another 5 years, Joe, that we’re able to do that. And there’s also clarity around which programs that aren’t housed inside a four-year or a BA degree program are working. We’re in the earliest stages of that. In most states where we are, we don’t have that level of clarity as to which programs are working to produce job outcomes, to produce direct earnings. But I think we’re going to get there in the next five or 10 years. That way, every 16 year old should be able to have this conversation effectively.

Fuller:One thing we’ve been looking at is what distinguishes community colleges in terms of their outcomes. And one of them seems to be an active engagement with the local job market—not waiting for employers to be in touch or just waiting to observe who gets hired, but combing through that data and saying, “This is what seems to be required.” Going and seeing a large employer and saying, “What do you want applicants to be able to do, so we can build it into our curriculum?”

Barth:This is what we’re seeing. Again, really exciting. I think our counselors out there are beginning to understand, first of all not community colleges are created equal. In your own backyard, you could have two options, and one is significantly outperforming the other. What’s behind that, Joe? Often it’s employer partnerships, it’s relationships that lead actually to specific outcomes when you’ve completed your AA [Associate of Art degree]. I think particularly for young people who are going into an associate’s program, if that associate’s program is not designed to terminate with a job, it’s very hard for a young person who’s 18, 19, 20 to persist for an AA that doesn’t have that clear outcome. The genie’s out of the bottle. If you’re in the community college field, building those partnerships is going to be essential. I’ll give you one example that we have in New York, which is exciting. There’s a community college in New York that’s four years old—Guttman Community College. There are young people now who go to Guttman, and JPMorgan Chase entered into a partnership with them. And they said, “We want to design a program where, while you’re pursuing your associate’s, you work at JPMorgan Chase at one of our banks 30 hours a week, paid.” I want to emphasize paid. And there’s no guarantee that every young person who starts there decides that they want to work in a bank their whole life. But when you talk about the experiences … so here’s now a 20 year old. They have an associate’s, they’ve been in workplace working 30 hours a week with customers. Think about how they’re positioned in the American economy today vs. someone who went and pursued an associate’s that was not connected to an employer, that was not specific from a skill development standpoint, that didn’t actually have the ability for them to bring a work experience to the next place. It’s game changing! So I think we’re just going to see more and more of that. Again, I think in 10 years, Joe, you’re going to see people say … Instead of saying, “I got to Bronx Community College,” they’re going to say, “I got to the medical technology program at Mount Sinai in Bronx Community College.”


Barth:That’s the way people are going to talk about what they’re doing.

Fuller:I hope you’re right, because what you’re describing is a program that checks every box on both sides of the ledger: the student and the employer. It’s a hackneyed phrase, but “earning while they’re learning.” We know that the lack of budgetary resources, the lack of financial flexibility, is what causes people to drop out of post-secondary schools. They are getting that valuable experience in a workplace while they’re in a training mode, so the employer doesn’t expect them to be hugely efficient on day one. They’re gaining a credential; even if they don’t get a position; they can now say, “I’ve worked at this company, I did these things, this is what I learned.” Many kids in their early 20s, mid-20s, when they’re applying for a job have never had a job like that. And then, for the employer, they’re essentially renting to own. If we go back to what we were saying earlier, if a soft-skills deficit is what causes a lot of people with particularly middle-skills jobs to washout of the workforce early, the employer’s been able to observe, and instruct, and train, and acculturate someone, so the odds that they invest in a new employee that then fails—which is a big hidden cost for an employer—goes down a lot. So, it’s really a win cubed, I’d say.

Barth:It’s huge. I want to pick on something you said about “earn while you learn,” because I think this is a really important point. At KIPP, we’re able to survey our alums. In the last couple of years, we surveyed them on different topics, and one of them we asked them about how financing is going in their college education. Forty percent of KIPP alums who skip meals, because they’re going to school and they don’t have the money. A quarter of them are taking care of people at home financially. The notion that you can somehow pay for school, and then not have an income, is antiquated. I think we have to build models that actually have built in the ability to be a way you’re learning while you’re earning a living wage. The same thing with one of the big critiques we found with job programs and it’s a right one is, if you’re a young person and someone says, “We have a job program, but it doesn’t pay, and it’s 200 hours,” it’s not a viable option. If you want someone to develop really important skills, they have to be paid while they’re learning them. These young people, they don’t have the financial wherewithal to study, learn, and not be able to have a place to live. And so, we’ve got to build a model to integrate that. That’s where something like the JPMorgan at Guttman program makes so much sense. It’s also, particularly for first-generation kids, a big issue. They need to have money to be able to eat, to take care of themselves, and some cases, take care of their family. That’s a big issue.

The second issue is that, when you’re in that deficit, you tend to be, in America, kids like KIPPsters don’t get to do jobs that are related to their field of study. So what we’re seeing is people are going up to school … The scramble to be able to eat, and live, and study means they’re not getting internships and jobs if they’re in finance. They’ll find themselves working in something that has nothing to do with finance because it’s paid. We’re going to have to figure out how to make that model more viable, because then the people with means are the ones who get the opportunities in the field of study, oftentimes unpaid.

Fuller:That does skew toward kids with the resources or affluent kids. There’s another interesting phenomena here, which is, when you talk to people about skills and educational level of workers, they pretty quickly start talking about, “Well, we have to make sure that tuition isn’t a barrier.” We have lots of debate now about tuition-free public education. It’s a topic for a different time, but what we see consistently is that tuition isn’t actually the barrier, because there are grants, there are loans, there are scholarships available. It is that, “How do I sustain myself while I’m studying?” that really becomes the economic barrier, and you can’t learn a skill in an unpaid internship. It’s very, very hard to stay in school unless you’ve got a lot of resources behind you.

Barth:That’s not an excellent model. Or, if it’s going to be longer journey, we need a community college to be designed where it says, “We understand you’re working 30 hours a week. Our model’s built around that.”


Barth:It is assumes you’re going to work 30 hours a week, and our scheduling works around it. That’s another big challenge for America, I think, an opportunity. What you saw when I described the program at Guttman Community College, the college actually said, “OK. If you’re going to be working, when are customers going to a bank? During the day. So we’re going to have to build or scheduling around that.”

Fuller:After the branches close.

Barth:In too many cases, we’ll see our alums going to colleges where they actually can’t get into the courses they want …

Fuller:… because they’re conflicting with their work hours?


Fuller:Wow. Just for our listeners, the graduation rate for four-year colleges … The six-year graduation rates are 50 percent variances in the low 50th percentiles in the US—about 54 percent. The three-year graduation rate for associate’s degree community college are in the low 30 percent. So the kind of stylized picture of someone who gets out of high school, they go to a four-year degree program, they graduate in four years, and they go into the labor market—you’re talking about a number in the mid-teens in terms of high school students. And particularly, when you get into communities that are less economically advantaged, communities of color, those numbers drop off dramatically. And the meme we’ve got that this is the way that college works is false.

Barth:And this is where our learning the last five, six years, we discovered not all colleges are created equal. So our counselors, in every one of our cities, when they sit down, they basically have, “Here’s the preferred application list for every level of this activity.” We have the recommendations of which associate’s degree programs, we have the recommendation of which four-year programs, all the way up through the most selective colleges. We have partnerships right now with Duke and Penn and Georgia, we have over 50 KIPPsters at Penn today.


Barth:So we’re looking for people who want to see our alum succeed. Those numbers should be a warning cry for the country and also for higher ed. And what we see too often is, we’ll have a young person graduate, get into two institutions, they will get into a college that has a graduation rate 20 or 30 points higher than another one to which they’re admitted. The only distinction is what they are going to have to come up with financially, and so this all becomes part of what we need to solve for. So whether it’s going for a BA or going straight into the workforce, having it be far more data informed, pulling off the financial barriers, like this is an imperative for the country. And the institutions that aren’t successful—again, in my view, the days of those are numbered—I’m not too worried about it because I think the data is now becoming far more readily available to people like us at KIPP and others.

Fuller:Let me come back to constituents we haven’t talked about, which are parents. I speak to lots of groups about our research here and very often you get into a conversation with a parent who says, “I understand that what you’re saying, that we need to have more skills-based education, and we ought to be defining outcomes around economic sustainability and independence and all the good things that come with household formation, but I want my kid to go to college, and it’s almost like you are saying, ‘Well, it’s college for your kids but not for mine.’” Are your parents receptive to this message? And how do you articulate it in a way that it circumvents this meme that’s been drummed into us through so many sources in the last 25 years?

Barth:I think we’re in the early stages of this work. What I would say is, I do run into a lot of places where people who look like me will say things like, “Well college isn’t for everyone.” But it sure as heck is for their kid.


Barth:So long as that’s the dominant way of working, you’re going to continue to see people say, “Well college must be right,” because if people with choice are choosing it …

Fuller:… exercising that right …

Barth:… it’s the message. And I think—I’ll put my challenge out given that this is a business school podcast—I think it’s partly up to business leaders to be the ones sending the message repeatedly year in and year out, that this is not a requirement. And absent that, if everyone in your suburban town sends their kid to college, it will be the default. That will take some time. If it’s going to be real, that’s going to have to be partly what happens. To be honest, for our families, we’ve been in the counter-narrative, which is helping our families understand that college can be an option, and that, even if they don’t have means, there’s a way for their child to not just go to college, but be able to pay for it and graduate. Having CEOs and people speak out and say, “This is what we’re looking for in a young person.” And it need not be BA required. And if it is BA required, let’s be explicit about it, but it should be based on some belief that that BA did something. And you’re right, the dominant meme is BA. And we grew up in a time when that has been the currency. Looking backwards, the data has supported that. The majority of our alums who go to college are very happy with their choice. The issue is, we’ve not had an articulated option for them that’s different, and we had not had an articulated option that anyone can actually yet consistently write home about.

Fuller:Well, I think a lot of the trends in employment markets suggest that now is the time to get employers broadcasting that message and designing their employment practices around these for a couple of reasons. One, obviously, a very tight labor market, and secondly, the arc of job creation in the United States is very much oriented toward job that currently require a college degree or beyond. And the companies are just going to not find graduates available. So they’re going to have to revisit either the degree requirement or the architecture of the job to try to make it a job that someone whose got a certificate, got a micro-credential, got an associate’s degree, and may be on the way eventually to a degree completion can fulfill that work.

Just to close, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask you to share with our listeners a few thoughts about the state of K–12 education in the United States. KIPP has been arguably the most impactful force in the charter school movement for more than a quarter of a century. What’s the report from the front? How are things going, and how are you looking beyond this issue at KIPP’s future and the future of K–12 education?

Barth:On the good news side you know, I’ve been in this work for 30 years, I think a lot has changed. The first, I’d say, when I started in this work, Joe, most Americans, if they thought about what was possible for public education, certainly in communities where we work, they viewed it as the Jaime Escalante story, and it was viewed as this radical surprise. Wow! Kids in LA could do calculus! That is over. We have kids doing calculus all over the country—at KIPP or otherwise. I chalk it up to, like, people wondered what’s possible; I think, in that case, you can’t go back, you can’t put that genie back in the bottle. There’s talent everywhere, if given the opportunity. Second thing, there was a battle for quite some time over having high standards for public education in America, and it’s been a pitched battle. We are a Federalist system, so it takes place at the state level. The reality is, by and large, if you go look at the standards that the states have in place right now, they were much higher than they were 10 years ago. That’s held, even if they’ve been called different things. And I’m excited about that because I think the truth is more families now today than ever get an honest view of where their child is, relative to what it’s going to take to access the modern economy than they did 10 years ago. Ten years ago, 80 percent of kids were above average, and everyone felt good. Today, people know, so I’m really optimistic. And the third thing—you know, I think that I’m just a huge believer in this—the American public is on to understanding that there are big shifts underway, and the expectations for what they want and need of K–12 are growing. Between people having seen schools do something no one thought they could do, between higher standards, and then I think between families now increasingly understanding that the world’s demanding different things, I’m bullish. We can find reasons to be pessimistic every day, but I’m a long-term bullish person on this.

Fuller:Well that’s great to hear, and Richard, I want to thank you for joining us.

Barth:Thank you, Joe! Take care.