Earlier this month, Kansas Governor Sam Brownback used his annual address to say he wanted to spend a lot more money on public schools. Even though Brownback is now leaving the state, his successor -- Jeff Colyer -- hasn't indicated yet whether he will follow Brownback's spending plan. Even with a considerable increase in school funding, Commentator John Richard Schrock says some of the governor's goals for education are unreasonable and unrealistic.
In his State of the State speech, Governor Sam Brownback acknowledged the need to spend $600 million more on public schools in order to comply with an order from the Kansas Supreme Court. But he also spelled out several demands. Among them: a high school graduation rate of 95 percent and... 75 percent of graduates would have to go on to complete college, tech school or enter the military. And all of this because Kansas taxpayer’s have a right to demand that their money produces results. In essence, the governor is saying, “If you take this much money, you better produce these results!”
Unfortunately, the school systems of Kansas and across America -- both K–12 and higher ed -- are more than willing to oblige. Sort of, anyway.
There is already evidence that “If you command it, it will happen.” Both the United States and Kansas have already seen an increase in high school graduation. Before the year 2000, the graduation rate was less than 70 percent. Now, it's nearly 85 percent.
That's an amazing increase in students earning a diploma on time.
If only it was true.
Immediately, Education Week and other news sources probed into this miracle and discovered widespread "creativity" in producing those results. Some under-performing students were shifted into alternative schools and were not counted. School districts also incorporated GEDs into their figures and sometimes found methods to graduate students who rarely attended or completed coursework. Perhaps you heard a National Public Radio report that cautioned that while some improvement may have been made by “stepping in early to keep kids on track,” these new figures likely reflect something else: a “lowering of the bar...” and “‘gaming the system’ by moving likely dropouts off the books and transferring or misclassifying them.”
In Kansas, my teacher contacts reported a range of situations, from having to pass students who did no class work or homework, to mandated grading scales where zero performance starts at 50 percent on a 90-80-70 grading scale.
But by far the most common inflationary tactic—and it is fairly widespread—is to have all students who received a “D” or “F” repeat the test or exercise, often using the exact same test until students achieve a “C” or better. And that graduates students who would have otherwise flunked out.
It helps achieve an image of school improvement that brings accolades from higher administrators, politicians and the community at large. In doing this, we are deceiving ourselves.
If more students were genuinely doing better academically to merit high school graduation, we would also see an increase in the ACT, SAT and National Assessment of Education Progress scores across the nation. Instead those scores are dropping.
And what about higher education?
Unfortunately, rigor at many public colleges and universities is already being eroded. In some cases, faculty who have assigned many Ds, Fs or had students withdraw, have been called on the carpet to be asked by administrators “What are you going to do about it?”
Tenure positions are being lost. Instead, adjunct or part-time instructors are hired on a year-by-year basis. With no job security, they know that they must give higher grades if they want to be re-hired.
So governor, if you want 95 percent high school graduation and 75 percent post-graduation completion, just give us a little time.
Simply put... when state and national leaders demand improved educational outcomes, there is no shortage of administrators who are willing and able to provide that success.
Now if you want those high school diplomas and those college degrees to actually mean something... well, that's a different matter altogether.