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 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. 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.
— Robert Slavin
Robert Slavin is director of the Center for Research and Reform in Education at Johns Hopkins University, a part-time professor at the Institute for Effective Education at the University of York (England), and chairman of the Success for All Foundation.
This post originally appeared on Robert Slavin’s blog, and was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.