Should We Mandate Graduation Rates?

Sometimes the best intentions generate the worst results.  We set a goal, pass a law, and turn it into a regulation that is meant to help to remedy a problem—but it harms instead.  We may have already seen this in play when it comes to Federal and State mandates that require public high schools to meet pre-determined targets for graduation rates.  Rather than setting schools to the task of raising student achievement, the combination of sinking test scores and rising rates of high school graduation strongly suggests many schools have simply lowered the bar for everyone to “make the numbers come out right” so that “success” could be trumpeted in a press release.

Making the numbers come out right has become a damaging American obsession.  Banks do it.  Bureaucrats do it.  At the risk of sounding like a Cole Porter song, even educators in their schools do it.  However, whether our motives may range from the kindhearted to the avaricious, it becomes an exercise in duplicity that masks problems instead of providing solutions.

When it comes to our system of public education, mandating rates of graduation has had the pernicious effect of subtly transferring the responsibility for success from the student to the school.  Every child now learns—if they learn nothing else at school—that everyone involved in their education will do whatever is necessary to ensure they progress toward a high school diploma.  If you don’t like homework, we won’t assign it.  If you hate books, we’ll make sure to read nothing too challenging.  If you dislike writing, we’ll make sure you don’t have to worry about anything longer than a paragraph—if that.  Just keep on attending whenever it does not inconvenience you, don’t act up too often, and put your name on top of the math worksheet we asked you to fill out after we gave you all the answers in a “review session” yesterday.  In exchange, we will certify you officially educated and send you into the world with an Illinois high school diploma.

We are now seeing the consequences of mandated graduation rates in our colleges, workplaces, and homes.  Find a college professor and ask if their students are as well prepared as they should be for the demands of higher education.  Track down a local employer and inquire whether they are seeing poorer work habits and an increasing tendency to blame others for poor performance.  Ask parents why their children keep bouncing back to their childhood bedrooms with tales to tell of terribly unreasonable demands for personal responsibility.

We may have no one to blame but ourselves for where we are at this—hopefully teachable—educational moment.  With several decades of abandoning high standards and promoting “feel good” classroom instruction now under our belts, research has found our children currently lead the world (“We’re Number 1!”) in the disconnect between their self-esteem and actual achievement.   By allowing our children to maintain their childlike sense of entitlement well past their chronological childhood, we have simply created many much taller and more easily frustrated “kids” who are too often unable to make the jump to responsible adulthood.

Proposals to now extend the “graduation mandate” to higher education are the wrong approach to the problem of the poor academic skills and work habits signaled by sinking graduation rates at Illinois public colleges.  Insisting that our colleges and universities slip diplomas to more and more unqualified students will not improve higher education and more than it has improved public secondary education; it will simply move the American Numbers Game up to a whole new level of dishonesty.  Legislators can, of course, congratulate themselves for a job well done when the numbers start to come out the way they decree they must; however, every citizen in Illinois will have to live with the consequences of their decision if they turn yet another part of our children’s lives into an experiment in shortsighted social engineering.

No one can pass a law that mandates success in any arena of public or private life—nor should we try.  We would be far better off if we used our taxpayer dollars devoted to education to give our students a more realistic assessment of their strengths and weaknesses, set rigorous standards for success, and put a simple message on a large sign in the front of every classroom in Illinois—although we should not, of course, mandate it.

The sign should read as follows: We handle the teaching, and you must do the learning.

I’m sure there are some who are astonished at the idea and find it vaguely disturbing—if not actively insulting—to insist that the responsibility for learning, and the success that follows, be shifted back to our students.  Our students are, the line of reasoning goes, burdened by so many problems not of their own creation that we should not add to the harm by they have suffered with completely unreasonable demands for personal responsibility.  What we need to do, according to far too many education experts, is to ensure our schools not do anything that might puncture our children’s fragile self-worth, which is prone to pop like a soap bubble when faced with the least little breeze of reality.

And, if we do, we will do much to gladden the hearts of an increasingly cut-throat global marketplace that is quite happy with the American way of educating so many of our precious young into not-so-precious incompetence.  If we are to make real improvement instead of juggling the figures to make everyone happy, our public education system has to stop playing the Numbers Game and face up to the reality of where we are now in terms of our students’ international competitiveness—in the rear of the pack and falling further behind each day we pretend otherwise.

Also published in The News-Gazette ( May 1, 2011

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