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

FSK Bridge 02 13 18
 

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.

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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

Why Leave Learning to Chance?

Every year about four million kindergartners enter America’s schools. They’re all excited, eager and confident, because that’s the nature of kindergartners, but unfortunately, we adults know better. We know that among those wonderful five year olds, 65% will reach fourth grade reading below the “proficient” level on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), and 31% will not even reach the “basic” level. We know which students in which neighborhoods are most likely to have these problems. Since 1980, the story has hardly changed.

Today, I’m writing this blog from an airplane flying from Baltimore to San Francisco. Flying was a risky business long ago, but today the chances are infinitesimal that my airplane will crash.

So here’s a question. Why is it ok to leave the reading success of children to chance? Why don’t we treat reading success the way we treat air safety, as something to ensure no matter what?

If you think we don’t yet know how to ensure the reading success of all children, you might be right, but I can tell you that we absolutely do know how to ensure a much higher level of success than we have now, with today’s teachers and today’s schools. I was recently reviewing research evaluating reading programs, and I found more than 60 different programs with moderate to strong evidence of effectiveness: one-to-one and one-to-small group tutoring, classroom methods, school-wide reforms, and technology. Over time, it’s certain that these approaches, and combinations of them, could become more and more effective, and we could approach 100% success.

Getting to 100% will require more than just better instruction. We are doing a study in high-poverty schools in Baltimore and found that while at least 21% of second and third graders need glasses, only 6% have them. I’m sure there are similar stories relating to hearing, dental, health, and mental health. Absenteeism is another blocker, and there are more. If we want to get to 100%, we have to deal with all of these.

Well sure, you might say, but how could we afford all of this? Fortunately, the most widespread reading problems can be solved inexpensively. The average annual per-pupil cost in the U.S. is about $11,000. The annual cost of our proven Success for All reading program is around $100 additional, or less than 1% of what we are already spending. Two pairs of eyeglasses — one to take home and one to leave at school — including the eye exam and glasses replacement, costs less than $50. Proven tutoring models provided by paraprofessionals can cost as little as $400 per student, but even at $2000 for one-to-one tutoring, that’s 18% of average per-pupil cost, and for only a minority of the class.

These modest expenditures on proven programs quickly pay back their costs in terms of reducing special education and retention, much less long-term benefits to children and society. Yet none of the 60 proven and promising programs I found is in truly widespread use.

On my airplane, of course, the situation is quite different. Pilots are carefully and extensively trained in proven methods. Technology is constantly developing to provide information and automated assistance to ensure safety and effectiveness. Back-up systems ensure that if things go wrong despite the best of preparation, disaster will not result. All of these systems are constantly evolving in response to development, evaluation, and implementation of innovations.

The reading success of a child is a very serious matter. It simply makes no sense to treat it any less seriously than we treat air safety. Just as on airplanes, we need systems to monitor children’s success, not to punish teachers but to know when and how to intervene if trouble arises.

Perhaps someday, we’ll put Boeing or Lockheed Martin in charge of our schools, and charge them with getting us as close as possible to 100% success in reading. I can see it now.

Proven approaches to:

Phonemic awareness? Check
Phonics? Check
Vocabulary? Check
Fluency? Check
Comprehension? Check
Vision? Check
Hearing? Check
Tutoring backup? Check

Ready for takeoff!

Of course we can solve this problem. All we have to do is to decide it must be solved and then do it. It is neither efficient nor ethical to keep accepting the number of reading disasters we experience in our schools.

No More Excuses: We Can Get All Children Reading

Everyone reading this blog knows how important it is that every child become a confident, skilled, and motivated reader. The latest NAEP results, released this month, remind us that there are far too many children who do not read well, that disadvantaged and minority children are overrepresented among poor readers, and that the inequalities in academic outcomes by race and class–our most serious social as well as educational problem–begins with reading inequalities in the early grades. Everyone knows that children who don’t read well will incur huge expenses over time in remediation, special education, repeated grades, and ultimately delinquency, dropout, and unemployment.

Everyone reading this blog also knows that we know how to ensure success for virtually every first grader. Imagine that your job were to ensure the reading success of every child in a Title I school by the end of first grade, and you had flexible resources to do it. You’d make sure kids had language-rich preschool and kindergarten experiences, learned phonemic awareness and letter sounds in kindergarten, and were taught using proven kindergarten- and first-grade reading programs that emphasized systematic phonics, comprehension, fluency, and vocabulary. Recognizing that even with the best of teaching not every child will succeed, you’d provide tutoring for kids who are struggling in first grade. You would test children’s vision and make sure they had eyeglasses if they needed them. You’d check their hearing and general health, and would make sure that all of these problems are solved as well.

You’d help teachers use effective strategies such as cooperative learning to motivate and engage kids with reading and effective classroom management methods to further build motivation and make effective use of time. You’d use technology, such as embedded multimedia, to add motivation, build skills, and individualize for students’ needs. You’d constantly assess children’s progress in reading and respond right away if they are found to be falling behind in any way.

Understanding that parents are a key partner, you’d encourage and help them read with their kids, build vocabulary, and develop a love of reading. You’d also work with parents to help ensure that all children attend school every day, and are healthy, well nourished, and have enough sleep.

You’d provide your staff with extensive professional development, give them regular opportunities to share ideas and solve problems with each other, and constantly monitor the quality of every part of your strategy. And, when your staff runs into problems that are not being solved with current approaches, you’d experiment with alternative solutions.

Each element of this strategy has substantial evidence of effectiveness in increasing reading performance.

If you did all of these things, and if the entire school system were focused on making sure that they were done in every elementary school, could anyone doubt that reading failure would be greatly reduced, if not eliminated?

Yet this rather obvious set of actions is far from what actually happens in most Title I schools. Title I elementary schools have funding for precisely this kind of work, and because they receive a lot of federal money, these schools are particularly responsive to federal policy. This is an area in which federal policy could make a substantial difference. Federal policies sometimes focus on aspects of reading, but do not facilitate the comprehensive approach needed to get every child to succeed.

Many problems of education are very complex, and the right solutions are not immediately apparent. In contrast, reading for every child is dead simple. Solutions are known. Wouldn’t it make sense to focus attention on this critical, solvable problem?

NAEP Scores Flat, Sun Rises Again

Yesterday’s release of the NAEP scores revealed that, as a nation, we have made little progress in the past 20 years in helping our 4th graders read on grade level. Now, writing about flat NAEP scores is like writing about the sun rising. There is nothing new or exciting about this news. We can predict the cycles of the sun, plan for it, react to it, but we cannot impact whether the sun will rise every day. We can impact reading outcomes for 4th graders, as a nation, we have so far failed to do so.

Recent research from Don Hernandez shows that for students not reading on grade level by 3rd grade, one in six did not graduate from high school on time. This rate is four times greater than that for proficient readers. If this doesn’t sound an alarm, I don’t know what will. Reading well is a fundamental necessity for learning in all other subjects from math to history, even art. Children who are not reading on grade level simply cannot reach their full potential in any other subject. Economically, this leads to immeasurable loss in untapped potential of our future workforce.

Instead of the “keep on keepin’ on” mentality that has yielded predictably flat results for two decades, it is time to do something dramatically different in reading instruction: Use what works.

There are pockets of success across the country, and four states –Arizona, New Hampshire, New York, and Pennsylvania have even made progress in closing gaps between low and high income 4th grade students in the past eight years. It is time we focus intensely on scaling up evidence-based successful practices. Our kids deserve, and our economy needs, a laser focus on changing these sadly predictable outcomes.