The national high school graduation rate increased to 75.5% in 2009, up from 72% in 2001, according to a report by a nonprofit group headed by former secretary of state Colin L. Powell. Considering that socioeconomic status is the biggest influence on academic achievement and that familial wealth declined substantially during that same time period, one would have expected graduation rates to have declined. The fact that they didn’t is likely the result of increased teacher productivity.
Worker productivity across the nation has grown steadily for the past thirty years, with corporate profits rising in spite of massive layoffs and a general decades-long trend of downsizing and exportation of jobs off shore. While technological improvements have increased efficiency, many workers have also been forced to do the same work that was previously accomplished by a larger work force, working longer, harder and faster than they did in the past.
This same trend has been happening in schools, with teachers being expected to implement numerous “reforms” that require them to work longer hours and accomplish more in their workdays.
One particular way this has played out is in the closure and redesign of so-called dropout factories, where 60% of a school’s population fails to graduate on time. These schools have been under tremendous pressure to change, resulting in closures, conversions to charter schools or redesign.
Education reformers will no doubt try to take full credit for these improvements and continue their lambasting of teachers and their unions. However, even when reforms can be positively linked to improvements in graduation rates, it is ultimately the teachers who must implement the reforms and who bear the greatest burden in terms of increased workload and consequences when those reforms do not succeed.
It is also questionable whether Powell’s data are even significant. A 3.5% increase is not a very large gain, particularly in light of the fact that graduation rates for black (63.5%) and Latino students (65.0%) are still substantially lower than for white (82%) and Asian students (91.8%)—(data from the Washington Post).
Furthermore, there are several states (e.g., California, Nevada, Connecticut, Arizona, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Utah, Nebraska, Arkansas, New Mexico) with stagnant or declining graduation rates, despite the implementation of the same types of reforms implemented in states with large gains. Indeed, Los Angeles and Oakland have among the highest percentages of charter schools in the nation and have closed many of their dropout factories, yet dropout rates are still relatively high for black and Latino students.
Ultimately, there is no doubt that teachers are working harder and that administrators are getting more out of them, despite declining wages. This would be one measure of productivity. Whether or not Powell’s graduation improvements are real or an artifact is another question.