Look beyond four-year graduation rates

Peter Greene

Editor's note: This post is a submission to Fordham's 2018 Wonkathon. We asked assorted education policy experts whether our graduation requirements need to change, in light of diploma scandals in D.C., Maryland, and elsewhere. Other entries can be found here.

The battery of questions in this year’s Wonkathon prompt is a good one, and they are all deserving of consideration. But I think it overlooks a major consideration: Why four years?

The definition of high school graduation that includes the qualifier “within four years” is now rarely even explicitly expressed, and yet it represents a perverse disincentive in the current system.

Consider this story from early in my own career. I met Pat (not the person’s actual name, of course) in Pat’s freshman year. Pat was taking low-level courses to avoid challenges that were well within Pat’s capabilities, but for a variety of reasons, school wasn’t really Pat’s thing. Pat stumbled through freshman year, and then completely bombed sophomore year and had to repeat most of those courses. Pat turned up in my eleventh grade classroom—now taking higher level, college-bound courses. Pat was a new student. “I was a dope,” Pat told me. “I was wasting my time, but now I’m going to do something with my life.” Pat worked through eleventh grade, continued taking college-prep courses as a senior, graduated, and went on to college, earning a degree in communications.

I would consider Pat one of our great success stories. But it took Pat five years, so to the graduation rate figures, Pat is no different than a student who drops out halfway through high school and never comes back.

Pressure to inflate grades, bogus credit-recovery courses, just plain D.C.-style fraud—these things don’t happen just because school districts are under pressure to graduate students. They happen because districts are under pressure to graduate students Right Now! In Four Years! (The formula has been fiddled with in the last decade, but the four-year deadline remains.)

For all the reform talk these days about personalization and flexibility, policymakers still deny public schools the flexibility to say to a student, “We are going to get you through this. We are going to see you succeed, even if it takes a little bit longer than it does for some of your peers.”

Instead, we have a measuring system that says the instant a student falters or stumbles, there is no benefit to the school in helping that student make it to the finish line a little bit later. A student who has to repeat a year is as bad on paper as a student who walks away and never comes back—but the student who stumbles and stays is far more trouble.

I’ll say without hesitation that the vast majority of schools and teachers work with that stumbling student on the five- (or six-) year plan because it’s the right thing to do, the choice that best fulfills our professional sense of responsibility. But it’s not the choice that our current definition of “graduation rate” rewards. Instead, our current definition rewards getting a diploma in every student’s hand after just four years, no matter what corners must be cut to do so.

Course credits and attendance are more than enough to determine readiness for a diploma. Exit exams, the Big Standardized Test, and credit recovery don’t really add any useful information, and they are all tightly tied to other systems of perverse incentives.

There is no reason for the traditional frame of coursework to be wired to a ticking four-year time-bomb. Removing that four-year deadline would give schools and students some breathing room to get things right instead of worrying about getting it right now.

Peter Greene has been a classroom teacher for almost forty years. He can be found at the blog Curmudgucation, usually disagreeing with the fine folks at Fordham (but he does like a good contest).