In my recent op-ed in the Seattle Times (Op-Ed - Meddlers), I talked about how the meddlers–people who overly influence education policy regardless of their qualifications for doing so–like to inject their policy ideas into the education arena even though they have little data to support the effectiveness of those ideas. I also call them the PeWKoB, People Who Know Better.
This practice contrasts with how they respond to good news in education. When things seem to be going badly, teachers and schools are to blame, and our ideas will fix it, they say. But when things go well, it’s because of our great ideas and programs.
A recent AP story serves up a classic example of this.
Rates Are Up
The article (Graduations Rates Up) says graduation rates have improved in Washington, as well as in more than 20 other states from 2002 to 2009. Some improved as much as 17%. This seems like good news. Yet, nowhere does the article point out the obvious contradiction between this and the common mantra that education is in “crisis.” During these seven years, the reform movement has been on overdrive. During these years, films like Waiting for Superman misled millions of casual viewers. And during these years, graduation rates were rising. Interesting.
At what point are we not in “crisis” anymore? What do the PeWKoB, such as Steven Brill, Michelle Rhee, and other reformers have to say about all this? We never hear anything positive from them, because it would destroy their movement. If we aren’t in crisis, we don’t need reform. We might benefit from some tinkering, but wholesale restructuring? It will do far more harm than good, and set us back from what we should be focusing on.
Who Gets the Credit?
The article quotes Nate Olson, a spokesman for OSPI, who explains why rates are rising in Washington. He gives credit to three programs by name: Navigation 101, Building Bridges, and the PASS Act, as well as a few unnamed ones.
My question: Why, when things go badly, teachers and schools get blamed, but when positive data like this shows up, we give credit to the state education bureaucracy? If these programs are really the reason (and I’m not saying they aren’t, except...more in a moment), then what will we say if the trends reverse, like they did in 2011? Does that mean the programs aren’t working anymore?
People are ravenous about blame and credit. Who do we blame when it goes wrong, and who gets the praise when it goes well. I think this is an aspect of human nature. Typically, we want the credit, but find someone else to blame. If my kid gets his diploma, it’s because he worked hard for it, and I supported his education. If he drops out, it’s because of those lousy schools.
But if these programs are the reason graduation rates are improving, I just have one question: Why haven’t I ever heard of any of them?
I follow the news. I work in a high school, where we talk about graduation every now and then. I’ve never heard of any of these programs. Doesn’t that strike you as odd? Especially the PASS Act, which the article says pays schools for improving graduation rates. Really? I’m pretty sure our rates have gone up in the last few years. Did we get this money? Why didn’t I hear about it?
So again, maybe we did, and maybe all these programs are vibrant and deeply infused throughout the district. Seems kind of strange I’ve never heard of them, though.
Is it possible rates are going up because schools are working hard for our students?
Is it possible more families and students are starting to perceive the value of a good education and of a high school diploma, and adjusting their priorities accordingly?
Is it possible that the small changes we’ve already made to improve the teacher-core are making a difference?
Is it possible teacher-preparations programs are improving?
For that matter, is it possible all those celebrity public service announcements and motivational posters actually worked?
I mean, really. Just about anything is possible. How can we know a thing like this? Here’s yet another guy with absolutely no data to support his notion about a cause and its effect. Why couldn’t it be these other things? More likely, why couldn’t it be all of them?
But, what’s clear is this: the article makes not a single mention of teachers. If you aren’t going to give us credit for good data, then stop blaming us for the bad data.
Never Good Enough
Finally, the article says the groups funding the graduation rate research want the rates to get up to 90% before they’ll be satisfied. These groups include Civic Enterprises and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. They sound like meddlers to me.
Why? What’s so special about 90%? Am I to believe these groups would lean back, pop the champagne, and breeze quietly into retirement satisfied with their life’s work if the rates ever reach 90%? Fat chance. I prefer Steven Brill’s remark to me after his speech last fall. No matter how good things get, I asked him how much success would be enough. He replied, “I’d look at the failing schools.” This refreshing honesty is more believable to me.
No matter how good things get, these people will never be satisfied. Perfection is the goal, and anything less is a failure. It is reflected in their standardized testing, their merit pay, and their “crisis” declarations. Depending on how you count it, rates in Washington have been over 80% the last few years, according to the very end of the article.
Isn’t 80% good? That’s not far from 90. But again, why 90%? What’s so good about that? That means 10% are still dropping out. Isn’t that bad?
This is why these arbitrary bars are so silly. And the article gives us a peak into how these groups determine their labels. It actually defines “dropout factory,” a term made famous by Waiting for Superman. A dropout factory is a school that graduates fewer than 60% of its students. In Washington, apparently we have only 15 left.
Isn’t that good? Where is the credit from the PeWKoB? You’ll never hear it spoken publicly.
But, why 60%? What is the basis for using this number as a cutoff for distinguishing really lousy schools from the merely kind-of lousy ones? Why not 55%? Why not 65%?
Do you see how arbitrary it is? Isn’t there a big difference between a school with a 59% rate compared to one with a 40% one, if any of them are that low? Yet, these people lump the 59% with the 40%, even if a 62% sits just barely about it.
Instead of meaningless stupid labels, maybe we should call these places what they are: Schools trying hard to serve difficult populations, which could use a little more help from the rest of the community. Schools that need more support, and less blame. (And support doesn’t have to be money, in case you misread that word. Support can be turning off your TV and buying your kid a calculator instead of yet another $100 pair of shoes).
If I could somehow get everyone in the country to really grasp how tenuous the data we treat like stone tablets really is, my work would be so much easier.
The 80% number I referenced above is a great example. What is the graduation rate? Like unemployment, divorce, causes of death, and dozens of other deceptively simple statistics, it’s a much harder number to count than you think.
Is it based on incoming 9th graders counted four years later? Seniors from beginning to end of the year? Is it over a four year or a five year period? The true rate is very hard to calculate, because you’d have to follow every student until they graduate, if ever. Some students take six years. Some students transfer and finally finish after moving to a relative’s house. In a different state. Some students move here from Vietnam as juniors. Does a GED count?
The 80% number above apparently includes students who finish in five or six years, but the lower numbers everyone seizes on count only those who finish in four. Which number matters more?
If you think this is minutia, that I’m over-complicating it, or distracting with the details, then you are unqualified to be commenting about the state of public education. Why would I say that? Because your basis for criticism rests on numbers that are not the right numbers!
The truth is, the opposite of this is the problem. The people who think we’re in crisis are over-simplifying things. They ignore complication. Reject excess variables. Dismiss details.
Details matter. Assigning blame and credit is complicated. Effects are easy. Causes are much more difficult. But good news is good. Celebrate it, and keep working for more of it.