Op-ed column: Higher graduation rates reflect lower standards, not success, in education

One of the silliest ideas now bandied about by public school administrators is that the quality of s

One of the silliest ideas now bandied about by public school administrators is that the quality of schools can be measured by their graduation rates. Like so many others documented in recent years in these pages by Peter Berger, this idea also stands in the way of raising standards in our public schools.

Standards have been watered down to the point of letting students graduate who have displayed little interest in their own education. The lower standards can be easily measured by comparing Regents exams in any previous decade with the Regents exams given in 2011.

Beyond this lowering of standards, rewarding students who make little effort has a detrimental effect on the quality of education in our public schools. Amid the emphasis on raising graduation rates, too little consideration is given to the effect on the academic level in high schools when indifferent students are passed on in the spirit of keeping the graduation rates high.

It doesn’t work

Retaining indifferent students in classrooms, with their tendency to undermine the work ethic of willing students, while at the very same time expecting that educational quality will somehow magically improve, is another idea just this side of La-La Land. Serious education can’t work that way.

In the public school world dominated by the attitudes of the American adolescent, where some experienced classroom educators, even in average to above-average schools, estimate that 35-50 percent of their students are making little real effort, a graduation rate of better than 90-92 percent is unrealistic. Moreover, more than 93 percent becomes an indication that a school is not really doing its basic job — that is, maintaining the integrity of education in the classroom.

A nearly perfect graduation rate — even in relatively affluent suburbs like Niskayuna, Guilderland and Bethlehem — is actually an indication that a school has NOT retained some basic quality standards. Some graduation rates recently released by the state Education Department are hardly believable — 94 percent for Guilderland, 92 percent for Sharon Springs, 89 percent for Fort Plain. Given the lack of work ethic among a large minority of high-school students, rates like these are more an indication that schools have lax academic standards. Much more realistic are graduation rates like 86 percent for Saratoga, 66 percent for Gloversville and 82 percent for Mohonasen.

The notion that the public schools should be used as day care centers for apathetic adolescents is a wholly contemporary idea, the rise of which correlates to the decline in the quality of public schools. Since when have schools become the holding area for social problems spawned by commercial pop culture? Why? That is not the purpose of public education.

Uncomfortable truth

The truth is uncomfortable: Many high school students are just not working very hard. Some are, but many, especially among the boys, are not. In high schools in the Capital Region and around the country, there is a major disparity in achievement between girls and boys. Girls far outnumber boys when it comes to advanced placement classes, top 10 graduate lists, class valedictorians.

Public school principals and superintendents need to make supporting quality teaching in the classroom their top priority. I recently discussed the lack of support that teachers in the classroom receive with a veteran teacher who made the astonishing observation that never once in more than 25 years has any administrator ever asked how he or she could support his teaching in the classroom. Not once! And this is not at all an unusual situation.

The pressures of appeasing board members and parents have disconnected most administrators from classroom reality to the point that many have become little more than public-relations front people who mouth fad educational bunk. Committees, mission statements, public presentations, curriculum mapping exercises — this is the name of the game if administrators want to look like they are doing a good job.

Many cannot be bothered to defend a teacher against a complaining parent even when the student is lying and the parent is misinformed. Blaming a teacher or a staff member is less risky for an administrator than is standing up for anything other than some public-relations shtick.

Process beats content

Therefore, graduation rates must be maximized at all costs, even if the general quality of classroom education is compromised. Process triumphs over content. Lower graduation rates make an administrator look bad. It may be true that graduation rates in New York state rose from 71.8 percent in 2009 to 73.4 percent in 2010, but that rise is an indication of little else than the fact that standards got lower.

It is certainly true that we want students to succeed in high school and to graduate. But we want students to succeed by taking an interest in their own education.

Rewarding indifferent students in order to inflate a graduation rate does not serve the interest of an overwhelming majority of students. The short-term benefit is a deceptive fix that ultimately misleads many students into thinking that life is not about meaningful achievement — that slacking off can be an acceptable life strategy.

The reality is that failure in school has become a personal choice of a student. Never has it been easier to graduate from American high schools.

As John Metallo recently noted in his June 19 Viewpoint, never in his years of working in a high school as a teacher, principal and superintendent has he seen a student attend school regularly and give a good effort who failed to succeed.

Most teachers say exactly the same thing. We need to accept the reality that some students will drop out and probably should drop out, and likewise accept the reality that dropping out is a choice. Such an acceptance is called realism.

Stop the gimmicks

One main goal for serious educators should be to provide options for those dropouts who decide they want to resume their education later in life, rather than to finagle the basic standards in order to keep indifferent and disruptive students in schools where they undermine the students who want to learn. The time has come to cease with administrative gimmicks that may look like educational malpractice to future generations.

It is high time to see through the jargon of many public school administrators. As the new school year begins, as we celebrate the appointment of yet another new commissioner of education who has virtually no experience in New York state public school schools, let’s drop the pretense that higher graduation rates reflect higher quality instruction. Serious public school professionals must focus on raising standards by motivating students to achieve, not by fudging standards to increase the graduation rates of students who are not willing to make an effort in the classroom.

L.D. Davidson lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

Leave a Reply