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The Politics of Measuring and Promoting High School Graduation [Updated]


“Good grief,” as Charley Brown would say. At the Chalkboard, Joe Williams is on a ‘Lucy’ mission to find something, anything to criticize at Edwize, and puts together a whole post complaining about half of a sentence in the below piece. In Williams’ eyes, it is apparently a capital crime that we agreed with what Bloomberg and Klein had to say on this issue, because we also mentioned that we don’t agree with them most of the time. Joe is free to view Tweed’s third Extreme Makeover through rose tinted glasses is he so desires. But the world of New York City public schools looks very different from the inside of a classroom and from the commanding heights of Tweed, and we make no apologies for seeing that world from the former vantage point.


High school graduation rates were the educational theme of the last week.

Here in New York, the State Education Department and the City Department of Education concluded negotiations over how to count the graduation rate of New York City public high schools, settling on a 50% rate.

In Washington DC, Senators Kennedy [D-MA], Bingham [D- NM] and Burr [R-NC] introduced a Graduation Promise Act [GPA] designed to address the question of high school graduation rates largely ignored by No Child Left Behind. The bill was supported by Alliance for Excellent Education, the Center for American Progress, Jobs for the Future, and the National Council of La Raza. Acccording to a joint statement by the four groups, GPA would authorize $2.5 billion in new spending to:

  • Create a federal-state-local secondary school reform partnership focused on transforming the nation’s lowest performing high schools;
  • Build capacity for high school improvement and provide resources to ensure high school educators and students facing the highest challenges receive the support they need to succeed;
  • Strengthen state systems to identify, differentiate among, and target the level of reform and resources necessary to improve low performing high schools and ensure transparency and accountability for that process;
  • Advance the research and development needed to ensure a robust supply of highly effective secondary school models for those most at risk of being left behind and identify the most effective reforms;
  • Support states to align their policies and systems to meet the goal of college and career-ready graduation for all students.

There are many positive features in the proposed GPA. High school graduation is the most meaningful measure of success in K-12 education, and is an appropriate target for national educational policy. There is a crisis in high school graduation rates, especially among students living in poverty and students of color. [In some quarters, the extent of the crisis is much exaggerated, but it is real and significant nonetheless.] It is important that GPA would dedicate real resources to addressing the problem — in stark contrast to the Bush administration underfunding of NCLB.

But in one important respect, GPA continues the most serious flaws of NCLB — it uses the NCLB definition for high school graduation rates, a four year cohort rate. This is an outmoded defintion which creates profound disincentives for schools serving students which need longer to complete graduation requirements, since it treats a five or six year graduation as the same as a high school drop-out. For immigrant students who are English Language Learners, to cite just one example, this is a profoundly unrealistic and unfair standard.

There are few occasions when we are in agreement with the educational pronouncements of Mayor Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein, but this is one. “If they graduate in five years, if they graduate in six years, more power to them,” Bloomberg told the Daily News.

Last summer, we did an in-depth analysis of this question on Edwize, A Plea For Educational Common Sense, With An Example Of How NCLB Defies Common Sense. Even if you read it before, it is well worth another read in the context of this week’s developments. This is a textbook case of what goes wrong with educational policy, even the best meaning of initiatives, when they ignore the real world of schools.