Much has been made recently of the nation’s dropout crisis, especially in our cities. In Philadelphia, for instance, only 61% of students entering 9th grade in 2007 graduated in four years. The failure of so many of our students to complete high school is a shocking indictment of the state of public education in this country. (RiShawn Biddle at Dropout Nation does as good of a job as anyone documenting and analyzing this issue.)
What is scarier than the dropout numbers, however, is the fact that they make our education system look better than it is. The reality is that a high school diploma doesn’t necessarily signify a quality education. Especially in struggling districts, there is so much pressure to keep down dropout rates that graduation has little to do with actual academic accomplishment: Though I don’t teach high school, multiple high school teachers in Philadelphia have told me that coming to class and completing most work–regardless of whether it is correct–is enough to earn a diploma. Is it any wonder, then, that two-thirds of African-American and Latino students who enter college need remediation? Indeed, I would argue that, while around 60% of students earn a high school diploma in Philadelphia, the percentage that are actually prepared to continue their education in some capacity is much lower.
That is one of the main reasons why I support increasing the rigor of our education system through faithful implementation of the Common Core. An education system focused on graduation only works if a high school diploma is actually meaningful. It is a disservice to our kids to attach such gravity to an accomplishment that has, at best, inconsistent value. But by standardizing the meaning and implications of a K-12 education in this country, we can more accurately identify where we are coming up short and–most importantly–better prepare our kids for life after graduation. Though this transition will almost certainly make the failings of public education even more apparent, education leaders in our country will need to accept the political wounds and move forward. Our nation’s students deserve nothing less.
The recent transformation of education into a prominent nationally policy issue has prompted an increasingly important question: who should be crafting our country’s education policies? Though teachers and school administrators have largely controlled education policy for decades, in recent years outsiders–including think tanks, charter management organizations, and other advocacy groups–have had impressive success in implementing reform policies. Unsurprisingly, this has led to a backlash from the traditional educational establishment, who insist that teachers are the only people qualified to decide what our education system needs.
I don’t think anyone could seriously say that teachers shouldn’t be involved in shaping education policy. Besides their obvious expertise and importance in student success, as the primary actors in implementing any reform it would be both illogical and impractical to ignore their input. But that doesn’t mean that they should take the lead. Teachers shouldn’t be the primary shapers of education policy because they have material interests in the system independent of its effectiveness. Education policy should be guided by actors that are solely interested in what is best for students.
Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that interests of teachers and interests of students or opposed–in other words, that teachers do not want their students to be successful. But it’s indisputable that teacher and student interests are not identical. Last-in first-out layoff policies? Nearly unbreakable tenure guarantees? Blocking of meaningful teacher evaluation systems? While certainly in the interests of teachers, those sorts of policies are at best marginally helpful to students. And that’s a problem. We should be able to point to every facet of our educational system and explain how it is the most efficient and effective way to help kids learn. Teachers primarily shaping policy won’t get us to that point.
Don’t get me wrong. Teachers can and ought to continue to pursue their interests within our education system. But let’s stop the illogical charade that they can simultaneously support what is best for our kids.