Last week, the Polk County School District received some of the best education scoreboard news we've had around here in a long time. Our high school graduation rate increased in 2016-17 at more than double the rate of the state -- 3.6 percentage points to 1.6. This is first time I can remember a significant Polk measurement surpassing a state measurement by a large margin.
After rising to 75.4 percent, Polk's rate still trails the state's 82.3 percent rate. But if you're a local economic developer, you can talk to out-of-county companies and executives and at least say, "See, we're on the move, faster than the state." For a year at least, we get to send a very positive directional brand signal.
But is it anything more than a manufactured brand signal? Does it convey something different and better occurring on the ground for our kids, teachers, and community? And if it doesn't, does cheering for it actually hurt our kids, teachers, and staff? Those are much murkier questions. They probably don't have clear answers.
My own instinct is to give a hearty golf cheer -- for the sake of our people and kids.
But I also feel obligated to explain to you why high school graduation rate is a quite meaningless -- and ultimately destructive -- measure for evaluating the performance and experience of any American school system.
The credential matters more to your life than the experience. It shouldn't.
My reasoning starts with a question. If you were 35-years-old today, dear reader, and looking for a job, would you rather: 1) Possess a high school diploma even though you were routinely absent and did virtually nothing difficult to obtain it? 2) Not possess a high school diploma because you came up short as a teenager in tackling "rigorous" coursework in a system that prides itself on tough numerical measures?
Let me answer that for you. You would prefer number 1. The unearned credential you were given would mean much more to your life prospects than the access to "rigor" you enjoyed and whatever skills you may have developed as a teenager short of receiving a diploma.
This is because graduation rate is not really what we measure when we measure graduation rate. We actually measure non-graduation rate. (The US has also become stupidly obsessed with four-year graduation rate. Graduate in five? You don't count. I'll touch on that at a different time, but you can imagine the incentive mischief it causes.)
The personal upside of a high school diploma is exponentially smaller than the personal downside of not having a diploma. Indeed, in reality, high school diplomas are not about rewarding anyone. They're about punishing -- more or less forever -- the teenagers who don't receive them. "Congratulations, high school graduates, today you have avoided social elimination before you turn 20." Cue the celebratory music.
By the time you have aged past your college years, no employer will audit in any way the underlying "quality" and "rigor" of your high school record. (The U.S. Military and law enforcement agencies might do it for kids fresh out of high school.) Instead, the desirable jobs will simply lock you out if you don't have the useless credential. You won't exist.
Thus, we should celebrate whatever future human benefit (or lack of human harm) we find in Polk's 3.6 percentage points of increase. It almost certainly includes at least some flesh and blood teenagers who would otherwise find themselves locked out of later life possibilities. I do not know how many; but each one is worth a cheer.
But we should boo and hiss the state and national credential and education system that makes this worth celebrating.
And we should recognize that it's impossible to know what portion of the 3.6 percentage points is flesh and blood teenagers who experienced education in a better way; which portion consists of phantoms who exist only through educational accounting techniques; and which portion is simply warehoused along so that the Kelli Stargels of the world don't have to confront the legacy of Florida and America's completely fake and utterly disastrous attachment to test-obsessed "rigor."
Everyone games graduation rate. EVERY.ONE.
As if on cue, NPR broke a big story as I started to write this yesterday about Washington D.C.'s graduation rate scandal. Key headline: "Students Across D.C. Graduated Despite Chronic Absences, An Investigation Finds"
And here's the key passage:
The OSSE findings also confirmed our reporting from the last school year at Ballou High School, citing violations, specifically, with 113 of 177 graduating students' records. Those include:
A pattern of students graduating despite extreme absenteeism
Inappropriate and excessive use of credit recovery (accelerated versions of a class)
A pattern of communications from administrators urging teachers to find ways of passing students regardless of absences. Teachers reported concerns about the effect this had on their performance evaluations.
Antwan Wilson, the chancellor of the city's public schools, said he was "disappointed" by the findings, notably that "over 60 percent of students [were] graduating with excessive absences."
Wilson said that the school district's internal review also saw excessive passing rates for absent students across the city, specifically at Anacostia, Eastern, Woodson and Roosevelt High Schools where "we are in the process of trying to understand what's behind some of the numbers there."
"Failure is a part of life," Wilson added, but he said the district still needs to make sure that students adhere to policies and are set up for success...
...Since publishing our initial report, WAMU and NPR Ed have heard from educators across the country that similar practices are taking place in their schools.
Indeed, Alabama recently confessed that its 90 percent graduation rate is hooey and that it doesn't actually know the correct number.
And right here in Florida, you'll be shocked to learn we're supposedly investigating graduation rate manipulation, particularly through alternative drop-out prevention schools, some of which are charter and some of which are not.
A ProPublica story last month reported that alternative schools like Sunshine High School near Orlando are “release valves,” taking in students unlikely to graduate on time to improve the traditional high schools’ graduation rate.
This is sort of darkly funny because our state graduation rate is terrible in comparison to other states. In Florida, we can't even cheat effectively.
What about Polk County? I routinely hear complaints from high school teachers and administrators about exactly what NPR cites in those bullet points above. And I'm going to be writing an account of the Kathryn LeRoy era's district relationship with Acceleration Academy, one of those safety valve schools. The question is how comprehensive the practices are and how much they affect the rate. I think it's basically impossible to know with certainty.
The "failure" lie
In addressing his district's scandal, the D.C. chancellor declared high-mindedly: "Failure is a part of life." Close your ears for a moment. I'm about to get colorful.
What BS. BEEE. ESSS. America's entire educational leadership class -- and especially those under the sway of the Jeb/Obama/DeVos "reform" movement, as D.C. and Florida have been -- preens around mouthing cheap movie mythology like "Failure is not an option" and "No excuses." And then they outsource any consequences for it to kids and teachers on the ground, while they sip Chardonnay at TED talk conferences and chase consultant contracts with stupid new buzzwords.
When I talk about the moral corruption of the failed Florida Model of education, which has deeply influenced the American model, this is what I mean.
American educrats and politicians spend the first eight grades of educational life terrorizing kids and teachers with bad tests and fake "accountability." Then, in high school, after we've beaten teachers and kids up for most of a decade and made many of them despise learning and teaching, all of that accountability nonsense evaporates.
The high-minded "failure is not an option" ethos of the no excuses/high expectations movement suddenly turns very literal. Failure is not an option. Literally.
If it actually were, graduation rates would plummet everywhere. And we can't have that. That might mean our educrat leaders, like Kelli Stargel, might have to face some personal accountability for their monumental failure and bad faith. It would also mean that economic developers would have to sell an honest graduation rate to the outside world. Unilaterally disarming in the grad rate arms race is a great way to get the business community to turn on you, politically.
Thus, "accountability" flips for principals and teachers in high school. It revolves mostly around how un-accountable they hold their kids. And kids know it. That's a moral poison.
Here's the crazy thing, though. It's also more moral than the alternative. In today's American life, it is deeply immoral to withhold a diploma from a kid -- and crush their future because of teenage folly. As a "hold accountable" tool, I cannot imagine anything worse than locking a kid who can read out of even a sniff of middle class existence because we withheld a meaningless credential for his or her own good when he or she was 18. That's killing an ant with nuclear weapon.
But that is the toxic toxic dynamic underlying the accountability/graduation rate arms race of the last 20 years. We are accidentally doing the right thing within a horrible and twisted model. But it's not because we care about our kids. Rather, it's an entirely logical -- and accidentally moral -- response to an immoral model
A shameless "I told you so"
It's worth noting that Hazel Sellers and I publicly predicted Polk's jump in graduation rate a year ago. That's when The Ledger published a good analytical story about how our graduation rate is lower relative to other counties than our relative poverty rate would predict. That gap has now narrowed, one would assume. It would be interesting to rerun the analysis.
At the time, Dr. Michael Akes, our new chief academic officer, was quite confident our graduation numbers would go up. Reading between the lines, I think Hazel and I perceived that he saw some low-hanging data fruit for increasing the graduation rate. Here's a key passage from that year-old story:
The School Board hasn’t had a deep conversation with Akes yet about what the district is going to do differently to reach poor students and increase the graduation rate, Sellers said, but she has confidence that he will move the district in the right direction because of his history with Osceola.
Akes said the district is going to improve how students are placed in courses, progressed through course tracks and engaged in the school day. He said retention will not be a strategy and there will be a focus on early literacy so that students are at reading level when they reach high school.
“Dr. Akes is an asset to our district as we try to focus on several things ... and do those things really well,” Byrd said. “We’re not going to be broad and all over the place, but focused on addressing needs where they are needed the most.”
And Hazel and I were quoted like this:
...“I think we’ve been calculating (graduation rates) wrong and we’re going to see a spike because Akes knows what he’s doing,” Townsend said.
Sellers agreed on the latter point.
“Some of our problem may be paperwork and how we record, which is frustrating,” she said. “When you’re in a district where children begin in ninth grade and leave, especially with migrant populations, you can’t verify where they end up or if they graduated, which counts against your graduation rate.”
Last week, I asked our leadership people point blank how much of the increase is accounting and how much is real engagement of kids. And, as you would expect, they said most was real engagement. I hope so. I really really do. And even if it's not, we still need to be competent in our accounting relative to other districts. It's a powerful, if stupid and destructive, brand signal.
I am encouraged by Akes' and the district's longterm focus on reducing retention (holding kids back from the next grade.) All research shows that retention is a great predictor of failure to graduate. It's also inhumane in its own right. No one earns the right to age. And most of our struggling middle schools have large populations of overaged kids in them. Most education beyond literacy is social, in my observation.
But not retaining kids also rubs some people -- including some teachers -- the wrong way. They feel like it's giving kids something they haven't earned. And it's particularly hard to justify rhetorically in a model that claims to prize accountability.
So we need to change the model and the very conception of what graduation means -- and what academic high school credentials, if any, a child actually needs to pursue happiness later in life.
Part 2 of this will provide a new idea. Rather than conceive of kids as a stack of credits, we should conceive of them as trees. Literacy is the trunk. It's what you truly need to have a shot. Can you read? Many, if not most, kids will be certified literate in elementary school, I suspect. Once you are certified as literate, everything becomes enrichment and performance based. Those are the branches and leaves. Can you play the piano? Can you speak a foreign language? Can you fish? Can you calculate an average?
Graduation becomes an age ceremony and community celebration of passage out of childhood -- a sort of national bar mitzvah. We reward the kids with the big bushy trees of accomplishment; but we don't punish literate kids whose trees are smaller. We urge them to keep growing. Doesn't that sound a lot better?