We can safely say that the Great Recession caused significant pain for American schools, ravaging state budgets and foisting teacher layoffs on some states and municipalities. But in Reynoldsburg, Ohio, at least, necessity has been the mother of more than just pink slips. The Columbus suburb has responded to shrinking revenues by reimagining its public schools and responsibly deploying technology in the classroom. Thanks to a new model of personalized learning, students can now enroll in one of four concentrated academies (chiseled out of what had been the district high school) and earn credit through internships and online classes. Enrollment is up 25 percent from four years ago, performance on state assessments has risen, and costs have been contained.
Some positive national trends have kept marching right through financial meltdown and mass unemployment—most notably the four-year graduation number, which has climbed steadily in the thirteen years since the passage of No Child Left Behind. But a fantastic (and imaginatively compiled) investigation from NPR reveals that staunching the flow of dropouts isn’t the same as producing students ready for college and career. Peaking graduation rates, the authors report, have resulted from a combination of new approaches: earlier interventions to keep stragglers from giving up (yay!), specialized programs that allow weak students to make up lost credits (meh), and cynical manipulation of statistics at the local level to clear dropouts from district rolls (ruh-roh). Juking the stats is a disgusting abdication of responsibility, but the more legitimate methods of inflating sheepskin totals—like laughably easy credit recovery programs—can be just as pernicious: In Camden last year, half of the “graduating” seniors originally flunked, submitted an appeal, and were given a diploma anyway. If credit recovery and second chances are going to mean anything, they have to be about more than handing out mulligans.
The benefits of college completion are trumpeted even more loudly than those of high school graduation; to some education reformers, a four-year degree is the only legitimate ticket to the middle class. So what does it say about our higher education system when in some states, the holder of a two-year associate’s degree earns more than his counterpart with a bachelor’s? The American Institutes of Research’s Mark Schneider writes in the Wall Street Journal that associate’s degrees or training certificates in fields like nursing, building construction, and computer science can provide even greater rewards than the traditional college experience at a fraction of the cost. These “sub-baccalaureate” credentials offer a desperately needed pathway to the middle class for students who lack the grades (or funds) to matriculate to four-year programs right out of high school.