Tag Archives: graduation rates

What Is A Diploma Worth?

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.

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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.