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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About the Editor
Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow
Kathleen Porter-Magee is a Bernard Lee Schwartz Policy Fellow and the Senior Director of the High Quality Standards Program at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, where she leads the Institute’s work on state, national, and international standards evaluation and analysis.
May 16, 2013
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