Ohio’s graduation debacle: The return of social promotion

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The Ohio General Assembly recently passed and Governor Kasich approved legislation that allows students in the class of 2018 to graduate without demonstrating competency on state exams or meeting career and technical education-related requirements. This means that there won’t be any assurance that those getting diplomas have learned much of anything. At a time when Ohio is trying to get reasonably serious about ending social promotion into fourth grade—via the Third Grade Reading Guarantee—voters and taxpayers should be outraged that it’s again reared its ugly head in connection with the promotion that matters most: exiting from high school into real life.

Why worry about social promotion? Consider an interview with Doug Lemov, the well-known author of Teach Like a Champion and co-founder of the Uncommon Schools charter network. Richard Whitmire recounts Lemov’s experience as a tutor at Indiana University:

One of the football players he tutored was a redshirt freshman who had gone to a high school in the Bronx. “He was a real gentleman, a decent guy in every way, but he was struggling academically. So I said, ‘Why don’t you write a paragraph about yourself,’ which he did. I took one look at it and thought, ‘Holy shit, he can’t write a complete sentence.’ I can still see it in my mind’s eye, on a yellow piece of paper written in black ink. There wasn’t a complete sentence in it. It was just unbelievable.”

Curious as to how the football player had been admitted, Lemov visited the athletic office, where he learned, much to his surprise, that the player was there on his own merits: He had good grades and good recommendations. So they admitted him.

“All of a sudden it hit me, that here was this decent kid who wanted to do the right thing, gentlemanly, never a troublemaker in class, and his high school teachers all wanted to do right by him because he was so talented, and nobody wanted to be the one to crap on his dreams by saying, ‘Actually you can’t write, so I can’t pass you.’” The sad result, of course, is that the player stood no chance to make it academically at Indiana University and eventually dropped out and returned to the Bronx.

“It was an epiphany to me about social promotion. Those teachers thought they were helping someone, but what they were really doing was making themselves feel better. In the end, they hurt this guy badly.”

Football is important in Ohio, too, but by lowering graduation standards, Buckeye policy makers think they’ve ensured that nobody will “crap on anyone’s dreams.” But they ought to bear in mind that some of the young people on whom they’re going to confer diplomas will now enter adulthood ill-prepared for its challenges. So far, this backslide on standards applies only to the class of 2018. Here’s hoping state leaders return to legitimate graduation standards for subsequent classes. 

Aaron Churchill
Aaron Churchill is the Ohio Research Director of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.