Do What We Say, Not What We Do?

Do What We Say, Not What We Do?

- in Weekly Briefing

Graduation Rates, Suspensions Highlight Our Hypocritical Approach to Public Education

By Rob Schofield

Quick Take:

  • Last week, North Carolina received two sobering reports about its high school graduation and school suspension rates.
  • Both of these items served to highlight the enormous disconnect between what North Carolinians preach and what we practice when it comes to public education.
  • Dramatic change is needed.

Two of the biggest state policy developments last week were in the field of public education. On Wednesday, the state Department of Public Instruction released long-awaited data about the state’s four-year, high school graduation rate. After years in which studies and claims from outside researchers and advocates seemed to conflict with the official reports emanating from inside the education establishment, a sober group of state officials were forced to acknowledge that the numbers are, in fact, about as bad as advocates had been claiming.

According to the Department, 68.1 percent of first-time high school ninth graders in 2002-03 graduated in four years or less. In other words, nearly a third of kids didn’t graduate on time. Not surprisingly, rates for different groups of children varied a good deal. Here are some of the “highlights”:

  • Girls 72.4%
  • Boys 63.9%
  • Poor children 55.3%
  • Children with limited English proficiency 54.6%
  • African-American children 60%
  • Hispanic children 51.8%
  • Native-American children 51.1%
  • Multi-racial children 65.2%
  • Asian children 74.1%
  • White children 73.6%

While the new four-year numbers do not necessarily correlate with an official “dropout rate” (i.e., kids pursuing GED’s or graduating in five-years are not captured in the four-year rates) they nonetheless paint a disturbing picture for any state that hopes to build widespread success and prosperity in the 21st century.

Appropriately, the new and more accurate graduation numbers came to light the same week as a new report from the research and advocacy group, Action for Children North Carolina (AFC), entitled Short-Term Suspensions; Long-Term Consequences; Real Life Solutions. According to this report, North Carolina has a significant problem in the area of short-term school suspensions.  

Key findings include:

  • Statewide, there are 216 suspensions for every 1,000 children enrolled.
  • Rates, however, vary widely from district to district (from as low as 25 per 1,000 to more than 600 per 1,000).
  • There are also significant variations by grade level, race, gender, and geography.

Not surprisingly, suspension and graduation rates are closely related. The AFC report puts it this way:

“Research shows that suspensions are correlated with poor academic performance, being less connected to and engaged in school and suffering from poor health (especially mental health). National studies also reveal that students who are suspended from school are three times more likely to drop out of school than other students.”

On the Problem: Widespread Agreement

The problems described in last week’s reports are not new and do not come as surprises. Young people have been leaving school early since the advent of organized education. In North Carolina, teenagers have left school to work on the farm or in manufacturing jobs for many decades – even centuries. Similarly, suspensions have been an issue of increasing importance for many years – particularly in North Carolina, where the rates appear to be much higher than the national average. A few decades ago, neither story might have even raised that many eyebrows.

Today, however, it’s commonly understood and accepted that these two stories highlight large and critically important problems. This is principally because our 21st-century economy will not easily accommodate such a huge number of untrained workers. Not only does the widespread lack of educational success bode ill for the young people themselves, it threatens the long-term health of our economy and society. As state schools Superintendent June Atkinson noted last week, “It was good enough in the 1950’s. It’s not good enough when we know we have to prepare students for the 21st-century global economy.” Add to this hard reality the difficult circumstances that so many of the state’s children must overcome and the challenge for the state becomes even more daunting.  

On the Solutions: The Big Disconnect

Despite widespread agreement about the scope and importance of the graduation and suspension problems, North Carolina suffers an enormous disconnect when it comes to crafting solutions.

On one hand, it’s widely, if not universally, accepted that better student achievement will require better effort from students. North Carolinians of all philosophical and political stripes are unanimous in preaching the need for students to apply themselves with unprecedented commitment, to stay focused and disciplined, and to make educational success their top priority. Students are counseled, in effect, to study as if their lives depended on it. Many affluent parents purchase the services of tutors, consultants, and pricey private schools and generally leave no stone unturned in order to assure that their children succeed.

On the other hand, however, many if not most North Carolinians take a remarkably laissez faire approach to the question of the state’s collective focus on (and commitment to) educational success. Here, large sections of the state’s leadership and citizenry seem more worried about controlling how much the state spends than about increasing the depth and intensity of its commitment to lifting and modernizing student achievement.

Despite their acknowledgement of the challenges the state faces, these forces pursue minimalist, incremental approaches (gradual hikes in teacher salary, tiny reductions in class size, small supplemental funds for disadvantage students and low wealth schools, a state lottery) and narrow comparisons (How does North Carolina compare to other Virginia? to South Carolina?) that do little to bring on meaningful change. Indeed, some groups on the ideological right argue that even such minimalist approaches are too extravagant and call for the state to abandon its commitment to traditional public education in favor of a privatized model that would import the all the inconsistencies of the “free market” – including, of course, the presence of large numbers of “winners” and “losers.”

Very few, if any, of the state’s leaders are willing to articulate, much less aggressively push for, what such a crisis situation obviously requires: namely, a real redoubling of North Carolina’s common commitment to education and a significant increase in spending. Indeed, despite a decade of judicial oversight and repeated pleas from parents and advocates, state leaders have yet even to follow the lead of dozens of other states by developing a comprehensive plan to “cost out” precisely what it would take to provide every child with the opportunity to receive the sound basic education to which they are constitutionally entitled. No state political leader has yet mustered the courage to stand up and commit to do “whatever it takes” to make education work for all students – even if, for instance, it means increasing the state education budget by 40 or 50%, and raising taxes to pay for it.

Instead, North Carolina lists along well below full throttle – using a half measure of resources generated by an obsolete revenue system to take on a problem that is twice as large and twice as important as it was just a few decades ago. The results, as was shown last week, are predictable.       

Not Without Hope

Despite last week’s sobering news and the state’s tepid commitment to the kinds of expanded services that are necessary, hopeful signs remain. In the AFC report on suspensions, there are several noteworthy success stories – some in unexpected places – in which targeted service programs have reduced the suspension rate in high risk communities. Similar examples exist for graduation rates.

These small scale efforts remind us that the intentional application of resources to tough problems can produce the results we desire. The only thing North Carolina lacks is the commitment (and resources) to make them possible on the scale they in which they are needed.