Essay / Education

Getting Schooled

There is a growing crisis today with our public school system. Dropout rates are growing at an alarming rate. Academic standards are falling rapidly. Everyone from the Bush Administration to The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation are interested in reforming our problematic public high schools. While it is agreed upon by everyone that the rising drop out rate in America is an important issue, no one seems to know what are the real graduation and dropout numbers in public high schools. While graduation rates are an important part of assessment in public high schools, how does the interpretation of this data help educators evaluate the success or failure of the public education project as a whole?

All state educational agencies are required to report their graduation numbers to the US Department of Education. Many states provide poor or incomplete data to the Department of Education. Some states do not report graduation data at all to the federal government. This whole reporting fiasco undermines the ability to properly measure and assess a fundamental aspect of public high school education. How do you analyze success or failure within public education without accurate data?

Another large problem in educational assessment is that money is involved. Good graduations rates get you more money and less scrutiny. If you reported a poor graduation rate your school/district/state would come under close examination and possibly loose funding which would mean programs, facilities and jobs. Some schools are even linking student achievement to teacher pay. This, of course, leads to all kinds of ethical dilemmas when a teacher’s pay is linked to her students’ performance. It is not hard to imagine of a world where a teacher would pass an underperforming student so that they could receive the bonus that is linked to graduation rates.

Gathering data about school efficacy is always difficult, but any helpful assessment is made impossible when agencies intentionally misreport their data. In May of 2005 the Indianapolis Star wrote that the states largest high school district reported a graduation rate to the federal government of 90 percent. The paper reported the real number to be somewhere around 35 percent. How can a district ever properly educate their students if they are not properly assessing themselves?

Sadly this problem is not unique to school districts in Indianapolis. North Carolina has also come under criticism for the erroneous graduation rates it reports to the federal government. Jay Mathews of The Washington Post points out that North Carolina’s “state’s education officials have been handling their graduation rate figures with the situational ethics I use when calling close, hard serves to my backhand.” Effective educational changes cannot be made to a system that denies there is a problem.

How does the reporting of graduation rates actually measure the effectiveness of the public educational project? Studies show that students who do not graduate from high school have less earning power and are more likely to end up incarcerated. Does that mean that being properly educated can be assessed in light of earning power and the lack of criminal activities?

Allan Bloom says that education has lost its way and no longer pursues “the real motive of education, the good life.” The good life is not something measured empirically by graduation and employment rates. Aristotle points out that education is meant to train students to have a true understanding of virtue–liking what is good and proper and hating what is not. A 100 percent graduation rate (if we actually had one) would not guarantee that students would leave their public high school education a virtuous member of society. They might have a job, but they might have no idea of what a truly good life looks like.

Assessment is an important aspect of any successful endeavor. Educational agencies must be dedicated to a transparent accounting of their successes and failures. Certainly graduation rates should be an important aspect of educational data, but so should a clear understanding of ones ethical obligations to other humans and what it means to be truly happy. I would argue that an educational system that is dedicated to enabling students to pursue virtue and happiness trumps any system that is focused on making their graduates economically productive members of society.

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