Hope is not a plan

Two weeks ago, Obama made waves in his State of the Union
address when he called for raising
the dropout age
and requiring all students across the country to stay in
school until they’re 18. One big solution to our educational crisis, he
explained, is to simply not let kids drop out. (Or at least to make it more
difficult for them to do so.)

If only it were that easy.

Obama may end up ratcheting up the pressure to water down the standards to
which all students are held.

The truth of the matter is, we have yet to develop an
education system that keeps students in schools, that holds them accountable to
rigorous standards, and that helps them meet those ambitious goals. Therefore,
by putting the focus on staying in school longer, without dealing with the very
real challenge of how you ensure that the time spent in school is meaningful,
Obama may end up ratcheting up the pressure to water down the standards to
which all students are held.

This is a truth that Al Shanker recognized two decades
ago. In the 1990 National Governors Association meeting, Shanker explained:

…if we had outstanding teachers and if
we were to require students to take a tough curriculum, and if we were to give
them homework to do and make sure that they did the homework, and if we didn't
promote any student unless the student learned what he or she was supposed to,
or graduate them, we would have schools just like the ones that I went to in
1939, '40, '41, about that time in New York City.
And there were schools like that all
across the country. We had wonderful teachers during the Great Depression, and
after that. And we had a tough curriculum. We also had a 76 percent dropout
rate in this country…Basically kids started staying in school when we promised
them sort of an easy ticket, so we had a school system with a high dropout rate
that was [had] quality standards, then we moved to one which had lower
standards and kept everybody in.

And therein lies the rub. In this country, we have an
education seesaw. Essentially, if you sit on one end, push standards higher,
and require all students to master a shared set of sufficiently rigorous
standards, the dropout rate goes up. If you sit on the other end and focus on
ensuring that we keep as many kids in school for as long as possible, the
standards to which those students are held go down.

This watering down of the standards can take many
forms—states can loosen course requirements, weaken standards, set
inappropriately low proficiency cut scores, or some combination of the three.
(In fact, too many states did exactly that to comply with the mandates thrust
upon them by NCLB.)

There is no easy answer. But if education leaders—Obama
among them—are serious about tackling this challenge, we need to call out this
tension far more directly. And, as states work to implement the Common Core,
they need to develop a plan to tackle it head on. And asking students to stay
in school longer isn’t a sustainable response. Because we’ve watered down the
value of a high school diploma, we now tell kids they need some college, if not
a four-year degree. Will our next plan be to mandate that students go to school
until they’re 21? And, if so, what will our response be when the value of a
college degree has been diluted and diminished to the point that it is worth
only as much as a high school diploma?

In
the end, raising the dropout age may get more kids to stay in school, but it
won’t meaningfully increase the number of students ready to succeed after
graduation. The only way to do that is to ensure that students graduate having
learned the essential knowledge and skills they need to succeed.

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