Reformer, heal thyself. You've ruined high school.

Max Eden

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.

School leaders across the country have systematically lowered graduation standards in order to boost graduation numbers (and their own reputations). So the question at the center of this Wonk-a-thon, “What are appropriate policy responses?” is certainly timely. It is not, however, the core question we should be asking ourselves. 

Policy is downstream of politics, politics is downstream of culture, and the culture of the education reform movement has been corrupted. If integrity at the core is not restored, policy “fixes” will merely tinker around the edges of the issue.

The technocratic education reform movement provides structural and social incentives for fraud. The central premise is that by empowering highly-trained central office leaders with world-class systems designed by preeminent experts, we ought to expect “transformative” change. The notion that sitting a bureaucrat trained by the Broad Academy in a chair could fundamentally change the life trajectories of thousands of deeply disadvantaged students within just a couple of years is, to put it mildly, willful wishful thinking. On the other hand, the systems, expectations, and professional incentives provide means and motive to commit fraud. In the rare event that reporters ferret out the fraud, technocratic wonks provide alibis rather than accountability.

Technocrats love to discuss the effects of incentives. For ambitious school administrators, the incentives all align to encourage lowering standards to produce higher statistics to gain applause and promotion. This will not stop until the risks outweigh the rewards. Those responsible for fraud ought not be celebrated as heroes, but instead have their records honestly exposed. 

Michelle Rhee claimed on her resume that after two-years of teaching, 90 percent of her students reached the 90th percentile in reading and math. That was not true. John Merrow uncovered documents suggesting that Rhee was “fully aware” of the scope of the cheating scandal under her watch. That stuff didn’t much matter: She still received money from foundations to promote her preferred policies nationwide and was recently considered as a candidate for secretary of education.

Antwan Wilson launched his career by taking the college acceptance rate of Denver’s Montbello High School from 35 to 95 percent. If that sounds familiar, it’s because it was the same stunt that the principal of D.C.’s Ballou High School pulled. All it takes to check the “college acceptance” box is having kids fill out an application to an open-enrollment institution. The paperwork gains were as fictional in Montbello as in Ballou: The year after Wilson left Montbello, 38 percent of seniors actually enrolled in college. Wilson’s resume boasts that as assistant superintendent in Denver, he oversaw “200 percent growth in AP enrollment.” According to state data, AP enrollment went from 5,154 to 7,993. That’s a respectable increase, but nowhere near 200 percent. Wilson’s resume boasts that he pioneered credit-recovery program, leading to higher graduation rates. There was also a major credit-recovery scandal under his watch, prefiguring what was to come.

Despite all this, Chiefs for Change ran a glowing Q&A with Wilson, titled “Education reform is tough. Antwan Wilson may have the answer.” It seems pretty safe to say that he does not. While there’s some poetic justice in seeing a high-flying career start and end with the same stunt, it seems almost unfair that Wilson bore the brunt of the damage for scandals started under his predecessor.

Perhaps the FBI investigation will tell us what Kaya Henderson knew and when she knew it. It wouldn’t be much better if she was truly clueless than if she knew and took credit anyway. We do know that Jason Kamras was tipped off about the discipline scandal. After apparently doing nothing to address it, he is now the superintendent of another major urban district. For her part, Henderson now sits as a superintendent in residence at The Broad Center, is a fellow at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and is a distinguished scholar in resident at Georgetown University.

The Washington Post talked to this year’s graduating class; they were deceived and are devastated. They are the victims of feckless leaders, enabled and awarded by the education reform establishment. A movement that started with the mantras “Kids before adults” and “no excuses for failure,” has put school administrators before students and seems content to stay silent in the face of fraud.

Why is it that “accountability”-minded technocratic reforms can’t practice what they preach?

Perhaps it has something to do with the sociological structure of the reform movement, which is largely defined by a series of circular, self-congratulatory confabulations. Reformers create hero narratives and invest their own social capital and status in the status of their supposed heroes. A threat to the reputation of “transformational” leaders is a threat to the reputation of the entire movement. It’s far easier to look the other way and keep doing the same old thing.

Hopefully, technocratic reformers will muster up the courage to call a spade a spade when one stares them straight in the face. If not, then the structural incentive for fraud and inflation will render policy tinkering little more than window dressing.

In the face of these headwinds, only a truly bold policy shift can restore systemic integrity: Make classes optional after tenth grade and grant diplomas to anyone whom a local employer certifies shows up steadily and performs adequately.  

In practice, policymakers already view a high school diploma as essentially a signal that a young adult can be employed. Policy should be centered on making sure that students can achieve that outcome, not making sure that adult policymakers can deny this goal to themselves.

This policy shift would also accomplish several salutary outcomes at once.

It would provide not-dishonest means for self-interested superintendents and politicians to post the graduation rate increases they want.

It would free up resources for additional investments in early education (which seems to be a more promising long-term strategy than forcing far-academically-behind seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds to stay sitting in rows of desks).

It would help schools provide better scaffolding and support for students who don’t intend to immediately attend college by freeing up resources for schools to provide those students with practical and professional support.

It would help students from deeply disadvantaged backgrounds provide for their loved ones, and in turn provide the kind of self-respect and confidence that only comes from providing.

It would also alleviate the pressure to “pass and promote,” which systematically undermines the emphasis and quality of schooling far before students near the end of high school.

Would it also have drawbacks? Surely. All policies have tradeoffs. But it seems like a more promising course than deflating the standards of the current system for the benefit of the adults around it at the expense of the students within it.

Max Eden is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute.