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Thompson: What Do We Mean When We Talk of Graduation Rates?

Graduation rates used to be incredibly easy to fabricate (almost as easy as attendance rates and even easier than jacking up proficiency rates) but I don't doubt they have become more reliable. I used to assume that the annual increase in graduation rates, and the equally ubiquitous decline in dropout rates, were half real and half bogus. Although graduation rates may be somewhat more reliable today, it is hard to see how they could ever function as a valid "output" accountability measure. (It also feels like "deja vu all over again" when reading Jay Mathews series on "passing kids on" in Washington D.C.) 

That being said, when John Hopkins' Robert Balfanz proclaims a big improvement in any metric, I reign in much of my skepticism.

We must acknowledge that increases in graduation rates may not mean that students are learning more about classroom subject matter. But, there is something more important at stake. More high school graduates mean that larger numbers of teens are learning something more important than the standards of instruction. They are learning to succeed. Conversely, they avoid the real world penalties attached to dropping out.

The Civic Enterprise and the Everyone Graduates Center, along with America's Promise Alliance and the Alliance for Excellent Education released Building a Grad Nation 2014-2015 Update. It presents news that is probably somewhat too good to be true, and it certainly reads like a document that is a compromise highlighting the priorities of numerous advocates. But, the annual report makes a lot of sense and it points the way towards fruitful collaborations.

First, Building a Grad Nation is a reminder of the importance of perhaps the most overlooked issue in school improvement. When schools' Promoting Power (or the ability of students to advance into higher grades) goes up, students benefit. Of course, we must ask what we mean by promoting power. Real Promoting Power must be more than social promotion. It must be more than "credit recovery" tricks to make accountability stats look better.

Really improving Promoting Power means that schools are doing a better job of mentoring children. It means that more kids are getting the help that is needed during the toughest transition years, such as 9th grade. More importantly, it means that students are learning how to work with others to overcome challenges. When Promoting Power increases and more students graduate, it means more kids are learning stick-to-it-ness.

Second, when graduation numbers increase dramatically, it probably means that more systems are using Early Warning Systems. As a large body of Johns Hopkins research documents, we need institutionalized systems for addressing absenteeism before it metastasizes into chronic truancy. It is not enough to merely identify who is missing school and write a memo ordering overworked educators to nip absenteeism in the bud. There must be dedicated positions for staff to go into homes and help families address the structural barriers that keep kids out of class. 

I'll admit to being skeptical of the Building a Grad Nation finding that the reduction in the number of the nation's Dropout Factories through school closures helped cause an increase in the graduation rate. I wondered how they would determine what was the cause and what was the effect. It seems just as likely that the national increase in the graduation rate caused the decline in Dropout Factories.  Moreover, given the disappointing results of School Improvement Grants (SIG), it seems unlikely that school closures and school turnarounds could account for such a huge improvement. 

The data cited in Building a Grad Nation is pretty persuasive; something good has been happening in at least some targeted low-performing schools. Even if the SIG rulebook, and the obsessiveness of blood-in-the-eye reformers in love with school closures, largely failed, it seems equally likely that a number of schools used the type of policies advocated by the Everyone Graduates Center (and other policies) and made real improvements. 

And, that means that discussions about paths to increasing graduation rates must also tackle the question of what do we mean when we say "reform."  For instance, the Hechinger Report has been documenting a wide variety of school improvement strategies, including efforts to increase graduation rates. They cite the work of  the Everyone Graduates Center and the Alliance for Excellent Education. But, the policies they chronicle read like the antithesis of those associated with the contemporary test-driven reform movement.

I'd say that the output-driven school reform movement is tied with the War on Drugs as the worst social policy failure since Prohibition. It could be argued, however, that it helped increase math scores, especially in the early grades, and it contributed to the increase in graduation rates. But, both sets of gains are likely to be the result of the input-driven policies that test-driven reformers ridiculed. Given the low levels of math knowledge of teachers in the 1980s and before, it is likely that the input-driven policy of professional development could have produced the math score increases.

It is inconceivable that high-stakes testing contributed to the increase in graduation rates.  The only possible way that outcomes-driven accountability could have increased graduation rates is by generating numbers (probably inaccurate but who cares?) to justify the hiring more counselors.  Almost certainly, the policies responsible for increased graduation rates are the old-fashioned student supports we could have provided without toxic testing.

And, that brings us back to Building a Grad Nation. Perhaps its authors were wise in ignoring high-stakes testing, while focusing on the good news related to graduation rates.  Perhaps they were politically smart to stress the need for building trusting relationships among teachers and students, overlooking the way that data-driven accountability has undermined trust and collaboration. Perhaps the next step in school improvement will require us to avert our eyes from the damage done by competition-driven reform, and concentrate on building teamwork for the next reform era.  If so, Building a Grad Nation will prove to be doubly prescient in pointing the way to ending our edu-wars and improving schools.-JT(@drjohnthompson)  



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