Drop out rates dropping?

Featured in this article is the argument that a high school diplomas is not necessarily the precursor to success. This is in response to a recent article in the local newspaper whose authors exclaimed about how the percentage of students who graduate with a high school diploma is increasing. The graduation rate may increase, but the rate of the intelligence of graduates will no doubt decline proportionately. The published article was edited for length, so included here is the original article.
The Dropout rate dropping?
An alternate school universe where all the students finish high school eager to join the work force in a high paying job in the career of their choice will be the happy outcome for America and its students if the commentary in the May 16th, 2014 Gainesville [FL] Sun is to be believed. In “End U.S. dropout epidemic by closing the opportunity gap”, Robert Balfanz and John Bridgeland write of this happy, joyful Disneyesque land as they gaze through a crystal lens towards a glowing future that will see the end of the high school dropout epidemic.
The “silent epidemic” of a decade ago of which they write became a top national and state priority. “Better data and strong accountability for increasing graduation rates played key roles” the result of which provides part of the reason for Balfanz and Bridgeland to make the enthusiastic claim that “progress is possible and hope abounds.”
Along with this happy happy news, even these two who co-authored a book on ending the dropout rate, note that challenges remain, and it will be necessary to close the opportunity gap between those students from lower income levels and those from middle to higher incomes. Other reforms are also mentioned in the article, but by and large Balfanz and Bridgeland point to a positive trend towards increasing the graduation rates. Using examples from states from California to New York and between both urban and rural areas, they point to school reforms that “…all have made a difference. Supports for students-from parents, counselors, mentors, tutors and national service corps members-helped create a culture where ‘every student counts.’”
The statistics they use, despite the absence of some of the sources, back up their pleasant outlook about the progress that has been made. “Graduation rates have risen from 71 percent in 2001 to 81 percent in 2012.” They predict that the nation is “…on pace to meet its 90 percent high school graduation rate goal by the Class of 2020.” Could it get any better? According to a report from “former West Virginia Gov. Bob Wise’s Alliance for Excellent Education “…reaching the 90 percent mark for just one high school class would create as many as 65,700 new jobs and boost the national economy by as much as $10.9 billion.” Balfanz and Bridgeland conclude this happy fairy-type tale with the idea that “progress in improving student achievement and graduation rates could boost the life prospects for millions of young people and restore our nation’s confidence that we can tackle our greatest challenges.”
I was a high school dropout in the 1960s and recall expecting the fairytale, and back then, despite the lack of a degree, I was able to land a job and even move freely from one, yes less than fun low paying job, to another with a degree of impunity unavailable to job seekers in today’s market. Not only that but I could even make ends meet. When I finally earned a couple college degrees in the 90s, my career prospects changed, and while finding a job then was easier than it is now, the ability to live on the income of a low wage job has become harder. Again, statistics don’t necessarily tell the story accurately because the job market figures, even when they rise, rarely mention what the jobs are or what the pay level is. Dropping out of high school then or now is not the answer, and I don’t recommend it. I would love to see the hopeful progress touted by Balfanz and Bridgeland come to fruition, but my concern is that the statistics do not tell the whole story or support the happy future foretold by the achievement of higher graduation rates.
Statistics often support what people want to hear as can be noted in a Gainesville Sun “Talking Back” segment from December 2012. When the Alachua County Superintendent at that time, Dan Boyd, countered concerns about the Value Added Model (VAM) of evaluating teachers, he pledged to “find a way to run the data in a way that will improve many evaluations and hurt none.” While this in no way indicates any impropriety, it does point out that statistical averages are not generally the best way to measure the success of teaching and learning.
Graduating from high school does not equate to having the knowledge or ability to succeed in the workforce let alone function in the day to day world. According to the “Nation’s Report Card” 24 percent of 8th and 11th graders scored as “proficient” in English, enough to write a coherent essay, so what does that say about the other 76 percent, and is just “enough” good enough? An AP article in an August, 2013 Gainesville Sun cites the annual report of an unnamed Iowa testing company whose president, Jon Erickson, said “The readiness of students leaves a lot to be desired.” ACT testing showed that 31 percent of all high school graduates were not ready for any college coursework requiring English, science, math or reading skills.
These are the high school graduates who, as Balfanz and Bridgewater gush, will “restore our nation’s confidence that we can tackle our greatest challenges.” I cannot think of any challenge our nation might face, including the sad state of our poor educational system, that doesn’t rely on English, science, math or reading skills. It’s hard to envision a 90 percent graduation rate that will create upwards of 65,000 jobs and boost the national economy by more than $10 billion. An article from the LA Times published in an August 2013 issue of the Gainesville Sun mentions the poor job outlook for college graduates who are flooding the market for jobs that don’t require a college degree and lead to lower earnings. Where, then, will high school graduates find jobs if those jobs are taken by college grads? And I have to wonder. From my experience as a former college educator, I am unfortunately all too aware that many of these college graduates are graduating from high schools that have lowered the standards to raise the graduation rates so these same students can go to colleges that are also lowering academic standards.
In Diane Ravitch’s book The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, she recognizes that testing is important but that we often forget that test scores are only an indicator. Test scores by themselves do not tell the entire story. Ravitch astutely observes that some things “…cannot be measured: character, curiosity, responsibility, persistence, generosity, integrity, kindness, initiative, ingenuity, compassion, creativity, [and] moral courage.” She goes on to say: “We don’t know how to measure love of learning, but we do know that it matters more in the long run than any question on a multiple-choice test”(280). This, to my view, is the real heart of the matter. Graduating from high school is a great milestone, but what matters is what a person does with her or his life down the road. Maybe Sam Cooke sums it up best with his memories, or lack thereof, of his school days.
Don’t know much about history
Don’t know much biology
Don’t know much about my science book
Don’t know much about the French I took

But I do know that I love you
And I know that if you love me too
What a wonderful world this would be

Yes, the catchy tune carries a simple message, but at its essence, the core of education is to set the tone for learning, and continuing to learn as well as to learn how to get along in this world the best one can.

My hope lies with young people such as Jade Henderson, a Seventh grader in Gainesville, whose letter to the editor about the “Beautiful ecosystem” appeared in the May 16th, 2014 Gainesville Sun. Her clearly written and well thought out considerations about the damage humans are causing to the ecosystem demonstrates an important aspect about knowledge that transcends education, though certainly education plays a vital role, and that is to care about something strongly enough to do something about it, and to believe that one person can make a difference. She has learned at a young age what many never learn: we all need to learn to live, not just with ourselves, but with everyone and everything we share the environment with. Thus there can be that glowing future that seems possible to Balfanz and Bridgeland, but the means to get there requires an entire change in attitude towards educational achievement and this is not as easy as ending the dropout rate. Closing the opportunity gap is a start, but as a nation we have a long long way to go before realizing the possibilities envisioned by Balfanz and Bridgeland.