Tuesday, April 24, 2012

LAUSD Raises and Then Lowers the Bar

Schools are broken, so the mantra goes: Too many students are dropping out, while those who are graduating are doing so without proficiency in math and English. Therefore, we must hold them all to higher standards!

This reasoning is irrational and the solution is doomed to failure.

If the point of raising the bar is to prevent students from graduating when they haven’t mastered the basic skills, then graduation rates will necessarily decline when the bar is raised. Simply raising the bar cannot force kids who aren’t ready to meet the expectations to suddenly meet those expectations. Kids will not suddenly be able to pass a college preparatory science class, for example, simply because it is now a graduation requirement.

The problem isn’t the schools or the teachers, but the social circumstances of the students. Academic success is overwhelmingly influenced by factors outside of school, most significantly students’ socioeconomic backgrounds. (See here, here and here). Some researchers, like conservative economist Erik Hanushek, say the teachers’ influence accounts for less than 10% of students’ academic success, which means that it will take far more than better teaching to close the achievement gap and significantly improve test scores.

Despite the irrationality of the “reform,” school districts across the country started to implement tougher graduation requirements. In some districts, like Los Angeles Unified, every student was required to pass college-prep classes with a C or better (as required by the state’s university systems) and earn at least 230 credits in order to graduate.

Recognizing that they were setting themselves up for failure (to the tune of declining graduation rates), LAUSD has backed off these requirements, proposing to allow students to graduate with a D or better in their college-prep classes, according to the Los Angeles Times. The proposal would ultimately allow students to graduate with 25% fewer or 170 credits.

Critics have lambasted LAUSD for lowering their standards. However, requiring all students to take college-prep classes is actually a higher expectation than what previously existed, regardless of the grade earned or credits required to graduate. In the past, students were allowed to graduate without ever attempting a college-prep level course.

Another important point is that many of these students would not be attending a state university in the first place. There simply aren’t enough spaces available in the state systems to accommodate every high school graduate even if they did wish to go, while the skyrocketing costs are making the state’s two university systems out of reach for more and more young people. Thus, the C requirement would only be an issue for those students who were planning on attending to a state university immediately after graduation. Anyone else could attend a community college first and earn credits there in preparation for a later transfer to one of the university systems.

Ultimately, if we really want to see more students succeeding in high level courses, we need to make sure that they are adequately prepared for these courses academically and socially. They need sufficient support structures and they need them in place well before they even enter kindergarten. This will require a substantial social investment in families and a serious reduction in poverty.

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