On High School Graduation Rates: Want to Buy My Bridge?

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Francis Scott Key Bridge (Baltimore) By Artondra Hall [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons, edited for size


I happen to own the Francis Scott Key Bridge in Baltimore, pictured here. It’s lovely in itself, has beautiful views of downtown and the outer harbor, and rakes in more than $11 million in tolls each year. But I’m willing to sell it to you, cheap!

If you believe that I own a bridge in Baltimore, then let me try out an even more fantastic idea on you. Since 1992, the achievement of America’s 12th graders on NAEP reading and math tests has been unchanged. Yet high school graduation rates have been soaring. From 2006 to 2016, U.S. graduation rates have increased from 73% to 84%, an all-time record. Does this sound plausible to you?

Recently, the Washington Post (https://www.washingtonpost.com/local/education/fbi-us-education-department-investigating-ballou-graduation-scandal/2018/02/02/b307e57c-07ab-11e8-b48c-b07fea957bd5_story.html?utm_term=.84c1176bb8ff) reported a scandal about graduation rates at Ballou High School in Washington, DC, a high-poverty school not known (in the past) for its graduation rates. In 2017, 100% of Ballou students graduated, and 100% were accepted into college. An investigation by radio station WAMU, however, found that a large proportion of the graduating seniors had very poor attendance, poor achievement, and other problems. In fact, the Post reported that one third of all graduating seniors in DC did not meet district graduation standards. Ballou’s principal and the DC Director of Secondary Schools resigned, and there are ongoing investigations. The FBI has recently gotten involved.

In response to these stories, teachers across America wrote to express their views. Almost without exception, the teachers said that the situation in their districts is similar to that in DC. They said they are pressured, even threatened, to promote and then graduate every student possible. Students who fail courses are often offered “credit recovery” programs to obtain their needed credits, and these were found in an investigation by the Los Angeles Times  to have extremely low standards (https://robertslavinsblog.wordpress.com/2017/08/17/the-high-school-graduation-miracle/). Failing students may also be allowed to do projects or otherwise show their knowledge in alternative ways, but these are derided as “Mickey Mouse.” And then there are students like some of those at Ballou, who did not even bother to show up for credit recovery or Mickey Mouse, but were graduated anyway.

The point is, it’s not just Ballou. It’s not just DC. In high-poverty districts coast to coast, standards for graduation have declined. My colleague, Bob Balfanz, coined the term “dropout factories” many years ago to describe high schools, almost always serving high-poverty areas, that produced a high proportion of all dropouts nationwide. In response, our education system got right to work on what it does best: Change the numbers to make the problem appear to go away. The FBI might make an example of DC, but if DC is in fact doing what many high-poverty districts are doing throughout the country, is it fair to punish it disproportionately? It’s not up to me to judge the legalities or ethics involved, but clearly, the problem is much, much bigger.

Some people have argued with me on this issue. “Where’s the harm,” they ask, “in letting students graduate? So many of these students encounter serious barriers to educational success. Why not give them a break?”

I will admit to a sympathy for giving high school students who just barely miss standards legitimate opportunities to graduate, such as taking appropriately demanding makeup courses. But what is happening in DC and elsewhere is very far from this reasonable compromise with reality.

I have done some research in inner-city high schools. In just about every class, there are students who are actively engaged in lessons, and others who would become actively engaged if their teachers used proven programs (in my case it was cooperative learning). But even with the best programs, there were kids in the back of the class with headphones on, who were totally disengaged, no matter what the teacher did. And those were the ones who actually showed up at all.

The kids who were engaged, or became engaged because of excellent instruction, should have a path to graduation, one way or another. The rest should have every opportunity, encouragement, and assistance to reach this goal. Some will choose to take advantage, some will not, but that must be their choice, with appropriate consequences.

Making graduation too easy not only undermines the motivations of students (and teachers). It also undermines the motivation of the entire system to introduce and effectively implement effective programs, from preschool to 12th grade. If educators can keep doing what they’ve always done, knowing that numbers will be fiddled with at the end to make everything come out all right, then the whole system can and will lose a major institutional incentive for improvement.

The high dropout rate of inner-city schools is indeed a crisis. It needs to be treated as such-not a crisis of numbers, but a crisis encountered by hundreds of thousands of vulnerable, valuable students. Loosening standards and then declaring success, which every educator knows to be false, corrupts the system, undermining confidence in the numbers even when they are legitimate. It fosters cynicism that nothing can be done.

Is it too much to expect that we can create and implement effective strategies that would enable virtually all students to succeed on appropriate standards in elementary, middle, and high school, so that virtually all can meet rigorous requirements and walk across a stage, head held high, knowing that they truly attained what a high school diploma is supposed to certify?

If you agree that high school graduation standards have gone off the rails, it is not enough to demand tougher standards. You also have to advocate for and work for application of proven approaches to make deserved and meaningful graduation accessible to all.

On the other hand, if you think the graduation rate has legitimately skyrocketed in the absence of any corresponding improvement in reading or math achievement, please contact me at www.buy-my-bridge.com. It really is a lovely bridge.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.


The High School Graduation Miracle

High school graduation rates have skyrocketed in recent years. From 2006 to 2013, U.S. graduation rates increased from 73% to 82%. Yet over this same time period, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) reports that the reading and math achievement of 12th graders have not budged at all.

How can these two apparently contradictory facts be reconciled? The unavoidable conclusion is that many students who were not graduating before are graduating now, or put another way, high school graduates today have lower skills than did students just a few years ago.

I don’t know exactly why this is happening, but I have a few guesses. One is that the use of what is called “credit recovery” has increased dramatically. Credit recovery means providing students who failed a given course another opportunity to pass. Apparently these courses are much easier to pass than the initial course. For example, a July 2, 2017 article in the LA Times described a credit recovery program in which a student could raise his grade from F to C in one week during the winter break. The report followed one student, who never did any lab work, but was seen copying a food pyramid from the Internet onto a worksheet. Credit Recovery courses are often offered online, in which case students can take them at home. Does this worry you? It does me.

Another possibility is that as graduation has become a focus of school accountability in many states and districts, teachers come under pressure to let marginal students pass. Unlike other accountability measures, graduation is determined by students’ grades, course credits, and other indicators that are subjective. Teachers may reason that passing such students benefits the students, the school, and themselves. So why not?

There is nothing wrong in principle with higher graduation rates, but if they are accomplished by lowering standards, then a high school diploma becomes even less valued than diplomas were in the past. This is unfair to students who work hard and pass their courses fairly, and it may contribute to cynicism throughout the system.

Further, reducing graduation standards undermines the efforts of administrators and teachers who truly want to improve student achievement as a way to improve graduation rates. If it’s a lot easier to provide credit recovery classes or to lower standards, then genuine reformers may be discouraged.

I hope there is some more optimistic explanation for the increase in high school graduation contrasted with the lack of gains in achievement. I’d love to believe that graduation rates are truly going up because of better schools and teachers, harder-working students, or other factors. Graduation is important for students, but for our society and our economy, it matters more what students can actually do. Letting students graduate without adequate skills is something we should not let pass.

This blog is sponsored by the Laura and John Arnold Foundation

Power to the Schools

With graduation season around the corner, I was recently thinking about a graduation speech I gave last year at the Graduate School of Education at the University of Pennsylvania. During the speech, I briefly made the case for evidence-based reform. Everyone seemed happy about it, but shortly afterward I got a scathing email from one of the graduates, who was furious (among other things) that I had not mentioned the crumbling of school districts such as Philadelphia. To make up for my omission, I will herewith explain why large urban districts like Philadelphia keep falling apart, and what to do about it.

Large urban districts face huge challenges in terms of funding, urban pathologies, and the indifference of people who do not live in them. However, there is a structural problem that inhibits their progress, I believe. This is the power of superintendents. School boards across the country seek wise, good, honest, and capable people to serve in this outsized job. Then in two to three years they chuck them out and start over. The process causes endless turmoil and undermines faith in the whole school district. Sometimes districts get lucky with an outstanding superintendent, but this is the exception; it’s not that most urban superintendents aren’t capable, but that no human being can do the job they’re asked to do.

In contrast to superintendents, principals and teachers stay for many years in the district, perhaps for their entire careers. As a result, they care deeply about the district, and have vast on-the-ground experience.

In endlessly seeking the genius superintendent, school boards are putting all their faith in the most transient part of the system. Further, by placing so much authority in the central office, they risk creating a top-down structure in which principals and teachers have little say or importance, and do not exert their best efforts to improve the system beyond their own school or classroom.

This is not the only possible system. In the 1990’s in the U.S., there was a strong movement toward site-based management. There were superintendents, but they more often left key instructional and staffing decisions to principals and school staffs. In England, where I work part time, equivalents of superintendents exist but individual principals and their staffs are free to decide how to use their resources to greatest benefit for their students.

These structural changes would not solve America’s problems in themselves, but they could do so in combination with national policies favoring evidence-based reform. Imagine, for example, that there were many proven, effective strategies for improving the outcomes of elementary and secondary schools. School staffs might decide among themselves which of these strategies to implement. The schools affiliating with a given model within a state or region might all become part of a network that cuts across district lines, each of which has its own approaches and each its own sense of professionalism. Parents might choose to have their children attend one or another kind of school.

Such a structure could capture the best of what charters and magnet schools do, with a key difference: Each of the school models would have strong evidence of effectiveness, and would be held accountable as a network for maintaining quality and delivering outcomes. Local superintendents would still be needed to administer the schools, but the unit of reform, the key decision makers in matters that affect student achievement, would be school staffs.

Philadelphia is in meltdown right now, but like other urban districts it’s been in deep trouble for a long, long time. To put it and other urban districts on the mend, we need to build on their strengths, the teachers and principals dedicated to their kids, and give school staffs powerful, proven tools to get the job done.