School Quality

3 Truths Every Parent Needs to Know About D.C. Public Schools Graduation Scandal

D.C. Public Schools is having a moment. Last month, reporters found out a lot of kids graduated from their high schools that shouldn’t have—mostly for truancy issues. The same school district that’s been touting its improving graduation rates in recent years has apparently given out unearned diplomas to more than a third of its 2017 high school grads—nearly a thousand students. What’s worse, many have looked to D.C. Public Schools for guidance on how to help students in urban districts succeed. They seemed to offer a hopeful glimmer of how an urban district could win out against resistance from teachers unions and community pressures by sticking with student-centered policies. Last month’s revelations don’t mean all the progress they’ve made was a sham, but it does cast a shadow over any real success they may have had over the last several years. It may also shake parents’ confidence, not just in D.C., but everywhere.

The Truth Is

Perhaps shaking parents’ confidence is exactly what we need. The truth is, most parents enjoy a false sense of security about the quality of their schools. If you're saying, “not me,” here's some food for thought. Last fall a survey found that 90 percent of parents think their kids are on track in reading and math, when the reality is only about a third are. Many students graduate high school thinking they’re prepared for college only to find themselves ushered to remedial classes. D.C. is the buzz of the moment, but last year Tennessee faced a similar issue with unearned diplomas, and a couple years before that Atlanta faced a cheating scandal that sent nearly a dozen school administrators to jail. In fact, after news of D.C.’s problems broke, others have come forward to suggest similar issues might be happening right now in Illinois, Massachusetts, New York, and about a half dozen other states.

What Are Parents Supposed to Take Away

So how do we deal with those issues as parents? What are we supposed to take away from all this? Here are three ideas for you to consider. 1. Don’t put too much stock in graduation rates alone.     A lot of people act like graduation rates are the gold standard when it comes to measuring school success. I’d say they’re more like fool’s gold. Check out this snippet from the Washington Post:
Even as they are graduating at higher rates, students’ performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a test of reading and math achievement, is unchanged or slipping. There are other reasons to be skeptical. Some districts have used questionable methods to get students to the finish line, including softening grading scales and using credit recovery programs, which allow students to take abbreviated versions of courses to make up for failing grades.
Graduation rates are still important, but if you're trying to make a judgement call about your current school or one you're interested in, try to get other information like how many kids are actually reaching the standards in reading, math, and science, and which groups of kids are making progress or falling further behind. Google “school Grades,” “school ratings” or “school dashboard,” and the name of your state to find your state’s school accountability system. Of course, as parents, there are a lot of other things we care about in our schools, but if academics is one of them, these are a couple things you can look at for a more complete picture. 2. Demand clarity about what your district's diploma actually means.     Purists like me will argue that a diploma should mean students are ready to move on to college or begin a career. Others argue diplomas should be given to anyone who finishes high school, even if they missed some graduation “requirements.” Either way, states and school districts should at least be honest about what a diploma means. In Louisiana, they’re trying to do that by offering diplomas at different levels based on just how prepared each student is. Most other states aren’t too worried about it. For a lot of families getting a child to graduation is everything. I remember after Michael Brown was killed by police in 2014 his mother, Lesley McSpadden, talked to reporters. “You took my son away from me,” she said. “Do you know how hard it was for me to get him to stay in school and graduate? You know how many Black men graduate? Not many!” Watching that video still hurts. When anyone wants anything that bad—so bad they’ll struggle and fight for years to get it— it’s because they believe it has value. The reason that a diploma is so important is because, for many in McSpadden’s position, it’s seen as the only ticket out of a hard life on the streets. Giving it out to students who didn’t do the work devalues the diploma and deceives families. But it’s a judgement call. At the very least we should demand that everyone’s on the same page about what graduating high school actually means. 3. Continue demanding better schools. Some detractors would point to D.C. and say, "See, trying to improve schools doesn’t work." Or "putting pressure on schools makes cheating almost inevitable." Don’t believe them. Being tempted and feeling pressured doesn’t excuse anyone from the choices they make. And some schools are seeing progress despite serving kids that are traditionally seen as “hard to teach.” Is progress as widespread as we’d all like? Of course not. Do we have a clear path of what all schools should be doing? Not really. But we know that millions of children are getting a shot at a better education because they have more options if their neighborhood school isn’t working out. We know the areas that need work because we’ve been measuring performance and keeping track at federal, state, and local levels. Improving schools is hard work, and everyone is still trying to figure things out. One thing I know for sure: Giving up is not an option.
Lane Wright
Lane Wright is Director of Strategic Growth at Education Post. In addition to this role, he tells stories that help families understand how their schools are doing, how to make them better and how policy plays a role. He’s a former journalist and former press secretary to Florida’s governor, and he’s got a knack for breaking down complex education reform policy issues into easy-to-understand ...

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