What we lie about when we lie about graduation rates.
Earlier this month, the Department of Education released the latest figures on high school graduation: After rising every year for five years, the national rate hit an all-time high of 84 percent in 2016. Good news, surely.
At Ballou High School in southeast Washington, D.C., the news was even more promising: 100 percent of its senior class last June was accepted to college. NPR covered the story with gravitas and congratulations. Breathless celebration spanned the web, from Mashable to Jezebel, with feel-good headlines like “Every Single Senior at This Low Income D.C. School Earned Their Way into College.”
Just the year before, Ballou had passed only 57 percent of its seniors, a mere 3 percent of whom met reading standards on citywide exams (and almost none of whom were proficient in math). What a reversal of fortune!
But if Ballou’s seniors were suddenly all making it through, their teachers weren’t: More than a quarter of Ballou’s teachers quit before the end of the 2016-17 school year—citing students’ poor behavior and attendance, an unsupportive administration, and an unfair system of teacher evaluation.
Diminished confidence in our public school system... contributes to societal decay in ways social scientists too often fail to grasp.
So how, exactly, could students’ performance have improved so drastically, even as their teachers were quitting in droves? To her great credit, Kate McGee, a reporter for NPR-affiliate WAMU in Washington, didn’t let the story end with graduation. She found an explanation for the miracle: systematic fraud.
The truancy policy in Washington, D.C., public schools (DCPS) holds that any student who misses class more than 30 times should fail the course in question. More than half of Ballou’s class of 2017 missed more than three weeks of school, and one in five missed more days than they’d attended. A system of remedial work covered their repeat absences. Teachers, under pressure from administrators, gave half-credit for missed work even when students had earned none. Those who objected, McGee reported, were given poor evaluations that could lead to dismissal. And seniors who weren’t on track to graduate with their class attended “credit recovery” crash courses, accelerated, watered-down versions of the classes they were already failing.
What did the higher-ups know, and when did they know it? At a November 29 press conference, Mayor Muriel Bowser said, “At this point, to be honest with you, I don’t know what mistakes were made at Ballou.” Antwan Wilson, the chancellor of D.C. public schools, also pleaded ignorance: “That’s what we need to understand. . . . What is the evidence of that?” He went on to say, “I believe it’s important to work with the Ballou community and staff to ensure that what we’re being told by our school leaders is accurate.”
Which would be worse here, one has to wonder: deception or ignorance? In light of our soaring national graduation rate, probably the latter. A conspiracy is at least confined by its operators’ competence, while cluelessness knows no bounds.
The education reform establishment is never much bothered by the perennial problem of whether their policies are, in practice, counterproductive. Indeed, journalists are baffled that Education Secretary Betsy DeVos hasn’t cheered the nationally rising graduation rate with the complacent boosterism of her Obama-appointed predecessors. Perhaps she appreciates the potential gulf between promising metrics and the underlying progress they may or may not represent.
The nation’s capital, for better and sometimes worse, has also been the nation’s leading laboratory for technocratic reform in public education. The theory behind all sorts of reforms was sound enough: Traditional public schools are stifled by outdated rules and restrictive collective bargaining agreements, so all-star managers (such as Wilson) armed with expertly designed accountability systems will deliver higher test scores and graduation rates.
Teachers’ unions mostly railed against these reforms, arguing that they would squander meaningful improvements in favor of measurable ones and arm school administrators against dissenting teachers.
At Ballou, the unions’ worst nightmare was realized. The principal used D.C.’s evaluation system to punish teachers who wouldn’t follow her scheme of relaxed truancy rules and breezy remedial courses. DCPS announced on December 4 that Ballou’s principal had been removed and assigned to “another function in the district.” None of this, mind you, would have unraveled without NPR’s reporting. And this wasn’t even the first revelation of DCPS fraud this year.
After the Obama administration threatened schools with federal investigation if their discipline rates broke unevenly by race, districts across the country cut back suspensions. But in New York, Chicago, the Twin Cities, Virginia Beach, Syracuse, Baton Rouge, Philadelphia (the list goes on and is still unfolding as new data come forth), classroom conditions deteriorated, and students and teachers said they felt less safe. Washington was the one bright spot in that suspensions dramatically decreased, but school climate seemingly stayed stable.
Another miraculous victory here in the headquarters of technocratic education reform? Nope, more fraud.
In July, Washington Post reporters Alejandra Matos and Emma Brown exposed D.C. principals’ use of informal “do not admit” lists to let individual schools keep out troublesome students without having to alert district-level tally-takers. One argument for fewer suspensions is that removing a disruptive student, an already vulnerable child, from school only disadvantages him or her further. But reformers dedicated to fighting the so-called “school-to-prison pipeline” willfully ignore evidence that keeping disruptive students in class hurts well-behaved students. And what message is conveyed when the rules are bent? A student on a do-not-admit list will probably guess he’s being punished if he tries to go to school, while also realizing that the principal, the ultimate authority in a child’s school-centered world, won’t own up to it.
And if he can’t trust his principal, why should we? More broadly, how much of what we read about “progress” in schools in the newspapers is actually a sign that things are simply being lied about?
One hopes DCPS’s pattern of institutional dishonesty is isolated. But given that there are more per capita reporters in this town than any other, it’s hard to imagine that some of the far-less-scrutinized school systems across the country aren’t just as corrupt. DCPS is uniquely picked over by education reporters and reformers, and it’s also the administrative fountainhead for progressive ambition. The Obama administration cajoled and coerced states across the country to adopt the D.C. model. Have they also adopted the local means of meeting those ambitious goals?
Any student trained... to resent, distrust, and work around her school’s requirements is also trained in contempt for all society’s institutions.
A “100 percent success rate”—and the giddy headlines that accompany it—will always obscure the strenuous reality of what it takes to run a decent school system the honest way. Worse, students will come to understand they’ve been used and lied to. Public trust in institutions will erode accordingly.
Diminished confidence in our public school system, as political scientist Edward Banfield wrote in The Unheavenly City Revisited more than 40 years ago, contributes to societal decay in ways social scientists too often fail to grasp.
Banfield’s proposal, already controversial in his day, would be verboten now: Kids who have stopped learning are better off gainfully employed than wastefully deskbound until age 18. For the common good, he argued, we should lower the graduation age rather than forcibly funnel these “nonlearners” toward graduation.
Nowadays, Banfield would be booed on a college campus. But Ballou offers proof of concept.
NPR tells the story of a girl there who learned how to game truancy court. DCPS students who miss more than 15 days without an excuse are referred to truancy court—and while all but 11 students in the Ballou senior class of 190 qualified for court referral, only 25 were sent. By this student’s telling, the court summons is the new tardy bell:
For what sort of life has Ballou prepared her? How much worse off are she and her peers for their cynical service to the school district’s desired metric? As Banfield would tell us, any student trained as she is to resent, distrust, and work around her school’s requirements is also trained in contempt for all society’s institutions.
We should be grateful when reporting calls into question the credibility of metrically miraculous transformations in public schooling—because underneath the bad accounting, there is a great deal more at stake.
This piece originally appeared in The Weekly Standard
Alice B. Lloyd is a staff writer at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.