The Perfect is the Enemy of the Good in Education

In the most recent issue of The Philadelphia Public School Notebook, Benjamin Herold describes the broken pipeline between secondary education and college in Philadelphia. Money quote:

Of the 145 students who started 9th grade at [Benjamin Franklin HS in North Philadelphia] in fall 2005, only 17 enrolled in a four-year college, according to new National Student Clearinghouse data provided to the Notebook by the School District.

Citywide, only 25 percent of students who started 9th grade in one of Philadelphia’s neighborhood high schools that year have enrolled in any postsecondary education, compared to almost 80 percent of students who started at the city’s most selective magnet high schools.

In other words, schools in Philly are deeply stratified. If you aren’t admitted to the one of the  city’s handful of magnet schools, it is unlikely that you will enroll in college, much less graduate.

This piece of data serves as even greater evidence of the crisis today in urban education. If we can say with some confidence that a 9th grader will not graduate college based purely on their school, there is something wrong with the system. As ed reformers continue to argue about next steps, I am reminded of the timeless Voltaire quote, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” We need to make small, incremental improvements to our schools and abandon the quixotic attempt to design a perfect reform. As adults squabble about the merits of charters and vouchers and the symbolic importance of traditional public education, students return to terrible schools, day after day. Whether you want to measure the failings of our educational system in terms of crime rate, college graduation, lifetime earnings, or test scores, we can’t forget that those numbers are composed of kids, kids that are being failed by a system by no fault of their own. Inaction is inexcusable.


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