Courtesy of wikimedia.org
George C. Scott as General Buck Turgidson, Dr. Strangelove.
Kidding. I'm kidding with that headline about not letting runaway graduation rates lead to an achievement score gap. (Hat tip to General Buck Turgidson's "Mineshaft gap!"
in Dr. Strangelove, starting at the 4 minute mark on the video.) It's great that graduation rates are on the rise
across the country, hitting an all-time high of 83.2 percent. I hope that number keeps heading higher. But consider for a moment what increasing the number of students who stay in school until they graduate does to overall student achievement rates.
Since this country began, we've striven to increase our student enrollment rates. Universal K-12 enrollment has been our goal, and we're closer to it than ever before. But a consequence of keeping more students in school is that schools have a growing population of students who are less likely to be high achievers. True, some students drop out because of factors beyond their control, but often they leave because school isn't working for them. When you keep those reluctant students in school, you increase the student population which is likely to score low on achievement tests, and they're also likely to make up the largest population of behavior and attendance problems. Every time we work to hold onto a student in danger of dropping out, we increase our educational challenges.
In 1920, about 27 percent of high school-aged students were in school. In 1950, it was around 75 percent. It shot up into the 80s in 1960 and has inched up and down since then, until now it's in the high 80s or low 90s. (The percent of K-8 students has always been higher than for high school students, but it has followed a similar upward trend.)
Think about today's high schools, with all their well-documented problems. Then think about what they might be like if we kicked out 10 percent of the students—those who combined the lowest achievement scores with the lowest attendance rates and the highest rates of behavior problems. School achievement scores would shoot up, not because the remaining students were scoring higher but because the students whose scores were dragging down the average would be gone. Attendance rates would improve for the same reason. And classroom disruptions would become less frequent. School would be a bit more like the "good 'ol school days" some people reminisce about, when that "problem 10 percent" wasn't in school.
When people talk about all the problems we have in school and conclude our "government schools" are doing a terrible job, they need to remember, we've brought lots of the problems on ourselves by doing everything we can to keep as many kids as possible in school. That's a good thing, but it's not without its negative consequences.
A Personal (and Not Very Flattering) Anecdote:
Many's the time a student drove me nuts during my 30-plus years of teaching high school, but I was the kind of teacher who tried to take care of his problems in-house, not send kids to the office or ask to have them transferred to another teacher. But one sophomore English student was driving me around the bend. I'd come home and complain to my wife about him almost daily. Finally, I told her I didn't know if I could take it anymore, and I was considering asking to have him transferred to another teacher who might have more success—or at least the kid would be that teacher's problem, not mine. To be honest, if he quit school, it wouldn't have bothered me a bit. Good riddance.
My wife quizzed me about his behavior and told me it sounded like he was frustrated that he wasn't able to keep up in class, so he was acting out as a defense mechanism against admitting his academic failure. At the time, I was also teaching classes for students whose reading scores were significantly below grade level, with fewer students so I could give them more personal attention. "It sounds like you should put this kid in one of those classes," she told me.
"What?" I said. "Just move my nightmare from one class to another?"
I did as my wife suggested. Miraculously, the student became a different person. He had a good attitude. He participated in class. He even looked kind of happy to be there. It was as if our earlier confrontations never happened. He didn't all of a sudden became a high achiever, but he was trying and learning and succeeding. He was one of those kids who, left to his own devices, most likely would have dropped out before he graduated—along with many of the kids in my classes for students with low reading levels—but we worked to keep him around, as we do with so many others like him, to his, and I think to society's, benefit.