Rasing graduation rates-- like herding cats
How does our nation truly improve graduation rates? Can it be mandated a la NCLB?
Dozens of states accept any improvement in high school graduation rates as adequate progress, and several set a goal of graduating fewer than 60 percent of their students, according to a study released yesterday by the Education Trust in Washington.
While the No Child Left Behind law has created a national focus on reading and math proficiencies, it has done little to raise expectations for the number of students graduating from high school, the report said.
Because the law allowed states wide latitude, the goals for graduation rates vary widely. Nevada, for example, says its goal is to graduate 50 percent of its students; Iowa sets a target of 95 percent.
Under the federal law, states must also set targets for annual improvements, but several states say that any progress at all — even just one more diploma — is good enough, according to data collected from the Department of Education.
The report found that state-set goals for raising graduation rates are “far too low to spur needed improvement.”
“The high school diploma is the bare minimum credential necessary to have a fighting chance at successful participation in the work force of civil society,” it said. “Yet current high school accountability policies represent a stunning indifference to whether young people actually earn this critical credential.”
But the report also found that the states’ goals are too modest to raise frequently mediocre rates of graduation. In Wisconsin, a high school can be considered to be making enough progress even it improves to just 60.01 percent, the report said.
The expectations for improvement “serve as an alarming indicator of an unwillingness to address the critical need of our high schools,” wrote Daria Hall, the author of the report. “We need targets that provoke action on behalf of the students, not ones that condone the status quo.”
In a speech this week, Representative George Miller, Democrat of California, chairman of the House Education Committee and an architect of the original No Child Left Behind legislation, said reauthorization of that law should include changes so that graduation rates were used as a key measure of performance.
The report praised New York City schools for making sizable improvements in the past three years. But while New York has raised its graduation rate by six percentage points over the last three years, it still hovers around 50 percent. For the class of 2006, just 41 percent of Latino students graduated in four years.
The problem, as we have certainly seen from our experiences with NCLB, is the bad consequences of good intentions. I fear that if higher graduation rates are mandated, all that will happen is that standards will be lowered to reach whatever magical threshhold is established to graduate warm bodies.
Just like with NCLB.
Let me use a little metaphor. We love cheap goods. We need cheap goods. Therefore, we import loads of goods from China. Then we're surprised when those cheap goods from China end up being... well, cheap. Hopefully, the cheapness will make up for the stagnation of wages that makes it imperative to keep those goods cheap. And not just cheap, but sometimes downright dangerous. Toys covered with lead paint. Food augmented with sawdust. Tires that shred at highway speeds. But those goods are cheap, yessir.
Same thing with the current "standards" hubbub, which is positively Orwellian. We reduce education to the lowest common denominator so that we can claim success under NCLB. Rather than actually try to improve the quality of education, we tinker with what "proficient" means so that more kids can be labelled with that word. We claim that ALL children will read or do math on grade level, even as 25% of our students qualify for special education, and the number of students coming to school as non-English speakers-- there's another unintended consequence of our current lack of immigration policy-- mushrooms.
We have already seen the ironic erosion of dedication to a well-rounded education in the name of NCLB. In the name of raising math and reading scores, science and history classes have disappeared at nearby elementary schools. And you know, I could speculate as to why people setting policy are okay with that, but it would just depress me.
Even before NCLB became law, many states attempted to reform school accountability. To be fully accredited by the state, minimum graduation rates were established that seemed pretty rigorous. Schools all around have allegedly met this standard and reeived accreditation. So why is it that classes of seniors eligible for graduation remain so much smaller than freshman classes?
Here's the secret: at some schools, counselors spend untold hours counseling kids who have indicated an intention to drop out. There's several possible outcomes that are sought. They get the kid to claim that they are simply going to get their GED. As long as they are listed as pursuing a GED, or their parents claim to be home-schooling them, these kids do not count against the school as drop-outs. Or, they can go to a strip mall, pass a 5-20 item multiple choice exam on a computer in a room run by a for-profit company, and voila! They can magically receive credit that would have taken weeks to earn in a regular classroom. It's magic!
It's also appalling.
Everyone knows these kids have no intention of sacrificing their time and effort in preparing to pass a GED exam. If they couldn't be bothered to fulfill the very minimal requirements for a regular diploma, or even worse, one from an alternative school, they certainly aren't going to spend hours studying. Everyone knows that their parents have no intention of providing any educational program whatsoever-- they're too busy trying to earn a living, and they couldn't even make their kid attend school. And that multiple choice test at the mall is too revolting to even contemplate.
But, by golly, all of these things make those drop-out rates look absolutely fabulous.