A 90 Percent Graduation Rate, but at What Cost?

December 12, 2019 Updated: December 20, 2019
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Commentary

It appears that the lofty goal of reaching a 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020 is going to fall short.

When GradNation was formulated in 2010 through the network of Alliance for Excellent Education, America’s Promise Alliance, AT&T, Pure Edge, and Raikes Foundation, the national graduation rate was at 79 percent (2011).

At the end of 2017, the percentage had risen to 84.6 percent. Oddly enough, the rate was 71 percent in 2001, which may lead one to argue that the increase between 2011 and now has nothing to do with the efforts of GradNation.

More students graduating is a good thing. But America needs to look less at how many diplomas are being handed out and more at what all is going into those diplomas. Why? Because as graduation rates continue to rise, high school students’ proficiency levels in various subjects continue to dip.

The National Association of Educational Progress (NAEP) points out every year in its Nation’s Report Card that our students are not doing very well. If you’re wondering where the NAEP came from, this excerpt from its website should answer that question in very bureaucratic terms:

“NAEP is a congressionally mandated project administered by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) within the U.S. Department of Education and the Institute of Education Sciences (IES).”

The Nation’s Report Card

The annual Report Card shows the proficient levels (as well as basic and advanced levels) of students in the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades, covering numerous subjects, such as science, math, reading, writing, and U.S. history. In the latest Report Card, all subjects have declining scores from 4th grade to 12th, with only one subject, reading, showing a minimal uptick from 4th to 12th.

Even the history of our SAT scores shows the annual decline in math, reading, and writing, no matter how the scoring is manipulated.

The NAEP has been tracking student achievement since 1971. Over the 1980s and 1990s, there were improvements in math and reading scores, especially between 1982 and 1992. Since then, those numbers have stagnated or dropped.

In 2012, the association published a 60-page report showing the progress or lack thereof in reading and math from 1971 to 2012. The report is a rather sobering one, showing that despite the incredible mass of information readily at our fingertips today, our graduating seniors aren’t any better off educationally than they were in 1971.

Oddly enough, the report does make the claim that “9- and 13-year-olds make long-term gains.” The last time I checked, however, 9- and 13-year-old children aren’t entering university. Nor are they entering the workforce, at least they haven’t been since 1938.

What Isn’t Helping the Problem

I think there are several solutions to the problem. But before I bring those ideas forward, here are a few items that are not helping:

Federal policies such as No Child Left Behind or the Every Student Succeeds Act have proven to not get it done. They have proven, however, to provide more administrative jobs in the education system. That equates to more career opportunities for those looking to tell teachers how to do a better job while at the same time exasperating the problem.

America’s Promise Alliance (aka GradNation) is the height of grandstanding in the education field by giving the appearance that they are helping improve the graduation rate. Their reports are merely regurgitations of NCES numbers, except with quotes from those associated with America’s Promise Alliance. In its most recent report, it notes that education is a state and local issue, but stresses more federal oversight. They also request stronger “accountability for non-traditional high schools” (I’ll address that in the solutions section).

An increase in education technology isn’t setting the school houses on proverbial fire like many, including myself, were hoping. While technology has its place in school, it cannot replace the teacher. The Wall Street Journal reported on this issue and pointed out that all the tech “disruption” may simply be just that—a disruption. A decrease, or at least a slowdown in edtech implementation means local, state, and federal governments can pull back financially, or perhaps put that money where it needs to go: toward the teachers (not the administrators) and their classroom needs.

Speaking of money, we spend more money per student than any other country in the world, save Luxembourg, which has a population of 600,000. Spending money isn’t the issue, and extravagant spending has proven not to be the solution.

Solutions to the Problem

I saved this section for last because hard truths are best saved for the end of a conversation. The statistics pinpoint obvious items you probably could accurately assume.

  • Private schools perform better, or at least their students score higher. Private schools are known for higher standards in their curriculum and for more rigid guidelines concerning student behavior. There may just be a correlation. There’s also much less bureaucracy. The bureaucracy is typically in the administrative office or it belongs to the parents and donors. It’s not that there isn’t any red tape, just less.
  • Sometimes it’s best to push the statistics aside and simply understand where students are coming from. English Language Learners (ELL), as they are identified in the annual Report Card, have scores much lower than non-ELL students. Students eligible for the National School Lunch Program (NSLP) also greatly underperform compared to non-NSLP students. One last item that directly reflects homelife is parents’ education attainment. The higher the parents’ education level, the higher the student’s score (statistically speaking).
  • There’s score fluctuation regarding school location. Suburb schools perform better than urban. Rural schools perform better than those in town. This indicates that the teacher-to-student ratio is important, as well as the learning environment inside and outside of class.

The solution to the problem is less federal involvement. There’s enough bureaucracy at the state and local level.

The solution is to let teachers teach the kids and not try to rely on new edtech that students and teachers have to learn simultaneously.

The solution is to not rely on more money from on high, but to rely on the teachers to do their job well. And if they are a poor-performing educator (and this should be confirmed by fellow-teachers, not simply by the stats), then it shouldn’t take an act of Congress to terminate their contract.

The solution is to give parents a choice of where to send their kids. Don’t force parents to send their kid to a school where the chances of a good education are nil. Urban to suburban. Town to rural.

The solution is to allow teachers and administrators to discipline students when they get out of line. School officials shouldn’t be in fear of a lawsuit every time they threaten a student with sentences.

And if a 90 percent graduation rate is really what GradNation wants, then this solution would really create an uptick in the rate: Don’t make going to school a federal law. Let the parents decide if their child goes to school or not. The ones that want to learn will be there and those that don’t will be somewhere else.

The education system is about educating students, not graduating them at any cost.

Dustin Bass is the co-founder of The Sons of History, a YouTube series and weekly podcast about all things history. He is a former journalist turned entrepreneur. He is also an author.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.