“Tyrone” sat across from me, leaning forward with his hands wringing in anxiety as I stared blankly at my computer screen. Staring back at me was Tyrone’s posted algebra grade. The course was required for seniors to graduate, and grades were due tomorrow. Tyrone was failing, and I now faced a choice. Do I contact his teacher and “advocate” for Tyrone? Doing so would inevitably put that teacher in ethically ambiguous territory, as they either alter his grade or offer him some sort of make-up assignment. Or do I do nothing beyond telling Tyrone he wouldn’t be graduating that spring? In the seconds this ethical calculus played out in my head, the memories of my interactions with Tyrone flooded in—only further clouding my judgement. I had been Tyrone’s teacher since his sophomore year. I was there when I had to tell him he was ineligible for football his junior year because of grades. I was there to give him lessons on what masculinity truly means because his father wasn’t in the picture. I was there the day after his mother died, and had no idea what to say to the young man who was now left with no one at home. When he thought about leaving our school his senior year, I was there and I was the one who urged him to stay. And here I was again—completely unsure of what to do. Tyrone didn’t graduate that spring. With the recent revelations about inflated graduation rates in Washington, D.C., and inaccuracies with California’s data, as well as the newly disconcerting analysis of misalignment between graduation requirements and college entrance requirements, our nation’s high schools are in the spotlight. Many are taking this as an opportunity to point fingers at the “systems” that created cultures of dishonesty, or opining on the violation of this unspoken contract between schools and society. While this is a pertinent, critical and difficult conversation to be had, I’ve been disheartened by the lack of perspective from inside the schools, from those who have to face these students everyday. Let me be clear. I fully support holding all students accountable to high expectations, and I fully recognize the importance of valid graduation rates. However, I am frustrated by the quickness to criticize “systems” and “cultures” within school districts without recognizing the larger factors that created these issues. The students who were failed by the graduation scandals are the same students who have had to combat systemic racism and oppression their entire lives, and have gone their entire educational careers merely getting pushed along because of cultures of low expectations. When I had to face Tyrone, not only did my personal experiences with him come to mind, but I immediately thought of what his life would be like without graduating from high school. He would make significantly less income over the course of his life, he would be more likely to become incarcerated and even his life expectancy would be lower. This is all compounded with the other risks he faces for simply being a Black male in the United States. There’s a reason we began measuring graduation rates in the first place—earning a high school diploma can lead to opportunities for students that can be life changing and can drastically improve their communities. We also judge schools, especially those in impoverished and underserved areas, by their graduation rates because it a is marker that is directly correlated to a school’s purpose of changing students’ lives. Yet, even though this data should be seen as objectively good, so many have quickly jumped on the use of data as a reason for improper behavior. There seems to be a growing narrative that school and district leaders have been applying pressure to teachers to pass students so the school can meet its graduation goals. In my experience, I have felt this pressure and even been asked directly to adjust records. Such pressure is immoral and no teacher should have to face this. However, I also do not believe the pressure to achieve higher graduation rates is maliciously intended. As educators, we recognize the direct link between the work we do with students in classrooms and in schools to their lives after graduation. By increasing graduation rates we are working to positively change outcomes for our students and this must always be our focus. However, it is apparent we must adjust practices so we are doing this work ethically and genuinely. To achieve our goals, I suggest we do the following:
Continue to measure graduation rates and set goals based on these rates.
Just because data can be manipulated, that doesn’t mean it should be discontinued. We still need to monitor schools’ progress and ensure that all students are being provided equitable opportunities to change their life outcomes. We of course need to reconsider how this data is monitored and reported and need to install safeguards to ensure accuracy. This can take the form of proactive audits of transcripts and better monitoring of class registration by guidance counselors.
Start thinking about graduation before high school.
More and more districts are starting to adopt early intervention systems for their ninth-graders as a means to improve graduation rates. While necessary, such intervention systems need to begin earlier. When a student in high school is still reading at a fourth-grade level, any intervention applied is likely to fail. We need to reconsider what remedial education and academic supports look like at the early stages so our students are not simply pushed along. Research from the National Middle School Association supports how interventions in middle school could drastically improve outcomes in high school. We need to ask ourselves the difficult questions of “What does grade promotion actually mean, and what must our students do to show they are ready for the next grade?” This work will be the most difficult because it will fundamentally change what we’ve conceptualized as “school.” However, we owe it to all of our students to face ourselves and our systems in order to authentically achieve the goals we’ve set forth.
Focus on reducing the barriers students face or attempt to respond to them.
The graduation scandal in D.C. revolves around student attendance, or lack thereof. The system has responded by more strictly enforcing previously established policies, which is logical and the consistency is needed in the current environment. But simply holding students to high expectations won’t help them overcome the challenges they faced from attending school in the first place, we must do more to eliminate or reduce these barriers. Data out of Chicago is promising on their efforts to focus on emotionally supporting their students and their holistic growth. By focusing on emotional development, the "Becoming a Man" program has seen a reduction in violence and an increase in graduation rates. Yet we will need to go further. School systems need to develop, through research, a better understanding of why their students are not meeting graduation requirements. What is keeping students from attending school? What is keeping students from passing core classes? From there, districts need to partner with local agencies and advocacy groups to address such challenges. If we are to genuinely and authentically improve graduation rates we must consider how a student’s entire context affects their chances, not just what is happening within a school. Tyrone was eventually able to recover the credit he needed and graduated later that year. However, that feeling when I had to skip over his name at commencement will haunt me forever. It will be a constant reminder that we have to do better for the sake of our students.
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Sean Worley has worked in urban education for the last five years as a high school science teacher and instructional coach. He started his career with Teach For America in Sacramento, California, but now serves his community in Washington, D.C. Sean received his master's in education policy from American University.