New ways to do high school 

At Omaha’s Bryan High, students may plant potatoes, care for chickens, tour Union Pacific headquarters or sort and ship books at a school-based distribution center, reports Education Week.

“Students can choose from 16 career clusters and two pocket academies—one focused on urban agriculture and natural resources and another on transportation, distribution, and logistics—or TDL, for short.”

Katrina Whitford, another junior, holds a chicken in her lap as she works in an animal science class at Bryan.

Katrina Whitford, a junior, holds a chicken as she works in an animal science class. Photo: Ryan Henriksen, Education Week

The story is part of Ed Week‘s Diplomas Count report, which focuses on new ways to do high school.

Another story looks at a new Denver high school that’s struggling to make its model work.

Northfield High was designed to place all students, regardless of past achievement, in rigorous International Baccalaureate classes. Students can pursue “pathways” in the arts, business, biomedical sciences and other subjects of interest.

The school also pledged to base grades on mastery, rather than homework completion or class participation.

Teachers were supposed to help run the school and share counseling responsibilities.

However, the principal was forced out in October after complaints about discipline. A majority of teachers will not return next year. The advisory program has been changed.

The second year’s incoming class will be predominantly Latino with fewer white and black students choosing the program.

The four-year graduation rate is up to 82 percent, notes Ed Week. Neerav Kingsland adds: “Expected to hit 102% with new credit recovery program.”

Rising grad rate is phony statistic

The high school graduation rate is “the phoniest statistic in education,” writes Robert Pondiscio. It’s up to a new high of 82 percent. But student proficiency isn’t up.  Neither is college readiness.

A high school diploma “signals to college admissions staffers, employers, and others that the holder has achieved some reasonable level of academic proficiency,” he writes. “But it’s also a faith-based system. It only works if people believe it stands for something tangible.”

There has been no equally dramatic spike in SAT scores. Don’t look for a parallel uptick on seventeen-year-old NAEP, better performance on AP tests, or the ACT, either. You won’t find it. The only thing that appears to be rising is the number of students in need of remedial math and English in college. And the number of press releases bragging about huge increases in graduation rates.

Rising graduation rates may reflect the drop in teen pregnancy and efforts to identify and help high-risk students, writes Motoko Rich in the New York Times. But schools and districts can pump up the numbers by making it easy for students to “recover” unearned credits.

In Baltimore, five-year graduation rates have risen from 66.7 percent in 2010 to 74.9 percent in 2014, notes Pondiscio.  But 36.5 percent of students graduated via the “High School Bridge for Academic Validation Plan.”

There’s “no way of knowing whether (credit recovery is) academically rigorous or merely a failsafe to paper over failure and drag unprepared kids across the finish line to boost graduation rates,” he writes. “There may yet be a pony at the bottom of this prodigious pile.” Or not.

New York City’s graduation rate has hit 70 percent, reports Chalkbeat. However, the 24 percent rise since 2005 “is sure to elicit questions about the meaning of those numbers, especially following a wave of media reports last year detailing incidents where schools changed students’ grades or awarded them unearned credits in order to help them graduate.”

Graduation rate hits 82.3%

Nationwide, the four-year high school graduation rate rose to 82.3 percent for the class of 2014, the U.S. Education Department reports. That’s up 1 percent from the previous year.

Gains were largest for lower-achieving groups, but gaps remain wide. While 89.4 percent of Asian-American students and 87.2 percent of whites earned a diploma in four years, only 76.3 percent of Hispanics and 72.5 percent of blacks did so.

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Four-year graduation rates topped 90 percent in Iowa and Nebraska with New Jersey and Wisconsin close behind.

In the District of Columbia, only 61 percent of students graduated on time. New Mexico and Nevada also were at the bottom of the list.

Graduation rates can be manipulated, as Anya Kamenetz writes on NPR. “The rising graduation rate reflects both genuine progress and some questionable strategies.” States are trying “early warning systems and increased support, to multiple diploma tracks, second chances, and in some cases apparent manipulation of statistics.

I’m very dubious about the use of credit-recovery programs to help students make up classes they’ve failed — often with little effort or learning.

U.S. lags in preschool, college graduation

The U.S. is falling behind the world in college-educated workers, concludes a OECD report on education in 46 countries. “The U.S. hasn’t backslid, but other countries have made big gains,”  OECD Education Director Andreas Schleicher said.

In the past, the U.S. ranked second in the world in the percentage of adults with postsecondary vocational or academic education. Today, the U.S. has slipped to fifth position.

South Korea leads the world: nearly 70 percent of 25- to 34-year-olds are college educated. Only 46 percent of young U.S. workers have earned a certificate or degree.

The U.S. is not on track to meet President Obama’s goal of leading the world in college-educated workers by 2020. College graduation rates are falling. according to a new report. Among students who started college in 2009, the year Obama launched his college campaign, only 53 percent had graduated in six years.

College enrollment rates have fallen since 2008, especially for low-income students. In 2013, just 46 percent of low-income high school graduates enrolled in two-year and four-year institutions, according to Census data.

More than 70 percent of young children attend preschool in OECD countries, compared to 41 percent of U.S. 3-year-olds and 66 percent of 4-year-olds. “It’s an area where the U.S. trails quite a bit behind,” said Schleicher.

Early college for all — in the Rio Grande valley


Krystal Balleza earned her associate’s degree two weeks before her high school graduation. Photo: Pharr-San Juan Alamo Independent School District

In a high-poverty district on the Texas-Mexico border, all high school students take “early college” classes, reports Hechinger’s Sarah Butrymowicz in the Washington Monthly‘s College Guide.

Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District (PSJA) Superintendent Daniel King pioneered early college for all at nearby Hidalgo. His goal is to persuade low-income, minority students — not just the motivated achievers — to raise their aspirations.

Nationwide, 90 percent of early college students graduate from high school, 10 percentage points above the national average, and 30 percent of students get either an associate’s degree or a certificate, according to Jobs for the Future, the Boston-based nonprofit that runs the national Early College Designs program.

Research has shown that students selected for early college schools by a random lottery have higher high school graduation rates and college attainment levels than those who lose the lottery and attend a traditional high school.

Incoming ninth-graders in all of PSJA’s high schools will take a college entrance exam used to show who’s ready for college-level work. They’ll take prep courses until they pass the exam, then move on to community college courses — usually taught at the high schools — and summer courses at University of Texas- Pan American.

Once enrolled in college courses, PSJA students average Bs, according to data provided by the district. Out of PSJA’s roughly 1,900 graduates this May, 60 percent took at least one college course. About 215 students graduated with an associate’s degree and 270 got a certificate.

By 2019, district officials hope that at least 90 percent of graduates will earn at least some college credit, with 1,000 students earning an associate’s degree or certificate, a one-year credential given out in fields like welding, IT and medical technology.

The district helps students make college plans and fill out financial aid applications. District staff advise first-year students on local campuses.

With an average ACT score is only 17.3, college degrees for all — or even most — is unlikely. But I’d bet these kids go farther than the PSJA students of the past.

I wrote about Hidalgo Early College High School and talked to King for my chapter on high-achieving high schools for disadvantaged students, part of Fordham’s Education for Social Mobility (soon to be a book!). It’s a very gutsy idea.

Will college pay? Check the Scorecard

President Obama’s plan to rate colleges on affordability and success rates collapsed. But the Education Department’s new College Scorecard provides useful information for families wondering what a particular college costs by family income and what percentage of students earn a degree and begin paying off their student debts within three years.

Most intriguing, the Scorecard uses IRS data to show enrollees’ median annual earnings 10 years after enrollment and the percentage who earn more than the average high school graduate, about $25,000 a year, six years after entering college. The information includes dropouts and graduates.
PHOTO: In an undated photo, The College Board offers data and information about colleges to prospective students.

At a quarter of American colleges, the majority of students who got federal financial aid end up earning less than $25,000 per year a full decade after they first enrolled,” reports Libby Nelson on Vox.

The Scorecard can track only students who received federal aid, but that’s 70 percent of the total.

Earnings aren’t reported by program or major, masking the variations between different degrees at the same school.

The Scorecard makes it “easier to figure out which schools are a waste of money,”  writes Jordan Weissmann on Slate.

PayScale is using the federal data to calculate the 20-year return on investment at different colleges for students in various family income quintiles.

I’m sure students and parents will find the Scorecard useful. But it has its limits. The highly selective colleges have strong graduation rates and graduates who do well in the workplace, though earnings are lower at liberal arts colleges, higher at technical schools. The less selective schools have much lower graduation rates. Their former students and graduates earn less and have more trouble repaying their debts.

Does an A+ student become a high earner because he chose Georgia Tech over Duke? Does the B- student become a low-earning dropout because she chose the not-very-selective state university over the not-very-selective private college?

I’m not sure C- students will use the Scorecard. If they do, they’ll see that the sort of college they can get into has very low graduation rates and low earnings payoffs. They’ll see two-year vocational degrees, but won’t see vocational certificates.

Can’t fail 

New York City gave me a ­diploma I didn’t deserve,” 18-year-old Melissa Mejia told the New York Post.

She frequently cut her first-period government class at a Queens high school, didn’t turn in homework and skipped the final. To her surprise, she earned a passing grade and a diploma.

Teachers are under pressure to pass students and keep up their school’s graduation rate, said Andrea McHale, who taught Mejia at Bryant High in Queens.  “If we don’t meet our academic goals, we are deemed failures as teachers. . . . I thought it was in her best interest and the school’s best interest to pass her.”

A Virginia mother in an affluent Virginia suburb is complaining that her chronically truant daughter passed English, reports Jay Mathews in the Washington Post. The girl skipped the final exam,  but earned an A for the fourth quarter, bringing her F average up to a D.

The teacher admitted the girl hadn’t earned an A, but said she “participated in several class discussions and demonstrated that she understood the bulk of the material throughout the year,” despite poor attendance and lack of effort. The final counts only if it raises the student’s grade.

“I complained recently about D.C. schools’ giving D’s for no work to get as many uncooperative students as possible graduated so the schools wouldn’t have to deal with them anymore,” writes Mathews. It’s an issue in the suburbs too.

The Fairfax student was delighted with the results, telling her parents she might hold the world record for getting passing grades despite doing nothing. Her parents want her to grow up. They wonder why the school system won’t help.

“If she still hasn’t mastered the skills or tackled the assumed requirements for a high school diploma — such as writing a paper, exploring historical periods, reading the classics and presenting a project — she will never succeed in college,” the mother said.

The mother is planning to send this kid to college? The girl sounds like a good candidate for a competency-based alternative program. If she’s so smart that she already knows it all, let her prove it. Or she could try to get a job that doesn’t require showing up.

Quick fixes for low grad rates


Why are graduation rates rising? In some places, quick — and dubious — fixes are responsible, reports NPR.

Many Chicago high schools mislabel departing students, for example.

They were saying they were moving out of town or going to private schools when, in reality, they were enrolling at the district’s alternative schools or, in some cases, GED programs.

. . . One school listed 120 students from the Class of 2013 as having left to be home-schooled.

Credit recovery programs, which let students earn credits after failing a class, are very, very popular — and usually not very demanding.

New Jersey requires students to take a graduation exam, but those who fail can take a second, much easier test, reports Sarah Gonzalez of WNYC. The untimed test has one question per subject.

Yet half the senior class in Camden, New Jersey failed the first and the second exam. Statewide, 1,400 students failed both exams last year, says Gonzalez.  Most graduated anyhow.

There’s an appeals process. And students can submit samples of work they did in class to the state. It can be a single, graded algebra problem or a persuasive essay with a teacher’s comments on it.

. . . The mandatory high school graduation exam just isn’t a barrier to graduation anymore.

Iowa has the nation’s highest high school graduation rate at 90 percent. NPR looks at an alternative high school in Des Moines that provides intensive support to get about half its low-income, low-motivation students to the finish line.

Graduation rates aren’t exactly accurate, but they are at an all-time high, according to Nathaniel Malkus at AEI.

Grad rate is high . . . but why?

Eighty-one percent of U.S. students now earn a high school diploma in four years.  That’s a new high.

There are three major ways to improve graduation rates, reports NPR in The Truth About America’s Graduation Rate.

  • Stepping in early to keep kids on track.
  • Lowering the bar by offering alternate and easier routes when students falter.
  • Gaming the system by moving likely dropouts off the books, transferring or misclassifying them.

What’s working in Hartsville

A poor South Carolina town has the highest graduation rate in the state. 180 Days, Hartsville, which premieres on PBS tonight, goes inside two Hartsville elementary schools.