The recently released “Building a Grad Nation” annual report reveals that the number of schools with low graduation rates is growing. Despite the nationwide high school graduation rate being reported at 84 percent (up from under 70 percent pre-2000), schools with lowering graduation rates rose from 2,249 to 2,425 as reported in the June 13 Education Week.
I have previously described the many ways that some Kansas schools have “increased” high school graduation rates, from establishing 90-80-70 grade scales that start with zero performance counting as 50 percent, to putting flunking students on computer-based tests that let the students repeatedly click answers until they accidentally get the question correct. But this nationwide shuck-and-jive involves alternative schools that accommodate the students who are not succeeding in regular high schools.
Because the survey only included schools with over 100 students, states with many small rural schools did not have many large alternative schools. Montana only had 8, Wyoming 9, North Dakota 8, South Dakota 6, Nebraska 2, Iowa 9 and Kansas reported 11 alternative schools of that size. However, New York has 251, Florida has 177 and California has 434.
It is in these alternative high schools with over 100 students where fewer than two-thirds of students received diplomas in four years. The Johns Hopkins University researcher and report co-author noted that the current 2,425 high-failure alternative schools in this survey compare to 2,249 last year, 878 in 2016 and 677 in 2014. Simply, alternative schools are rapidly becoming a dumping ground for regular high schools to transfer out failing students. This inflates their remaining graduation rates for bragging rights and to meet simple-minded criteria for “improvement.”
The co-author of the report observed that “...graduation-rate accountability has propelled the growth of alternative schools.” That is a polite way of saying that if higher graduation rates are mandated by political bodies, many schools are quite willing and able to deliver those graduation rates by gaming the system. Getting low performing students off-the-books is just one of many strategies to produce misleading high school graduation rates.
Why not strive for 95 percent or even 105 percent graduation rates? How? Easy. Award posthumous diplomas; who could assert that those who died in childhood would not have potentially graduated? And retrieve all those who failed to graduate high school since World War II; certainly “life experiences” count for a high school diploma if not an additional dozen college credits—educationists would claim. We haven’t begun to scratch the surface of methods to “game the system.”
The use of unprofessional “outcomes” and arbitrary goals in simple-minded attempts at improving-education-through-paperwork-regulations is likely to continue.
Genuine improvement of K–12 education should focus instead on providing well-trained, content-knowledgeable teachers for the classroom and providing them with the resources they need. The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) is the international agency that keeps track of education in the developed countries of the world.
The OECD has released the study “Effective Teacher Policies: Insights from PISA [an international exam]” that summarizes the top performing countries’ teacher training policies. The U.S. is not in the top half of developed countries based on student performance. While other countries focus on putting their best college graduates into the classroom to teach, the U.S. focuses on artificial indicators such as graduation rate that are easily “gamed.” This ignores what really matters: teacher quality.
Moving low-performing students to alternative schools joins other U.S. educational decisions, such as eliminating “too-difficult” algebra courses and allowing high school courses to count as college credit. Other countries are appalled at such proposals. Other countries are also beginning to question the value of the U.S. high school diploma and public college degree.
I have examined the staff listings on the websites of my state’s Unified School Districts. While the state’s high school graduation rates have never been higher, the percent of qualified teachers in our classrooms has never been lower.
John Richard Schrock is a professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Emporia State University.