Who Is Failing, the Schools or Us?

featured on the Learning First Alliance website, June 23, 2014

The past few weeks have been graduation season at high schools across America. The Class of 2014 has been unleashed on the world!  

As a school board member in Texas for nine years, nothing compared to handing diplomas to our graduates. Their eyes were shining as they crossed that stage, and their bright eyes reflected the efforts of so many to get them to that point – schools, school boards, teachers, the community, parents, and the students themselves!

A few weeks ago, there was good news about graduation rates in America, using data from 2012. Graduation rates have reached 80%, representing a 10% increase from a decade ago. The new graduation rates are now at levels from 40 years ago. Graduation rates are difficult to track, because of things like transfer students, the number of years it takes to graduate, and the various ways data is collected.  In 2008, the federal government created a new calculation system which has helped schools report data the same way and gain more consistency.

 American public schools have seen progress, and there are good reasons for it. Schools have become more accountable for the numbers of students who graduate. They have worked one-on-one with students in danger of not graduating. Schools with the most challenges have been given additional support. And there has been more of an awareness of the need to increase graduation rates, with groups such as America’s Promise Alliance and others highlighting the needs and the solutions.

Much of the recent gains have been among African-American and Hispanic students, and that is good news indeed!  Although it will be challenging, hopes are high that the graduation rate will increase to 90% by 2020, a goal set by American’s Promise Alliance, the group founded by former Secretary of State Colin Powell. Many people believe that in order to reach that goal, there will have to be a focus on the social and emotional learning needs of students, as well as stronger parent engagement. Others point to the policy in Texas, where the state gives school districts financial incentives to follow up with students who have been labeled as dropouts. The graduation rate for low-income students in Texas is higher than the national average.

I couldn’t help but notice that when this good news of increased graduation rates came out, I heard very little fanfare about it. I wondered about that – have we as a nation so bought into the conversation about our “failing schools” that we don’t celebrate – or believe – when we get good news?

So many people seem to want to speak only negatively about public schools today. They say things that prove their point, and they join the chorus of “our failing schools.”  There are about 50.1 million students across the nation who just finished the school year, and there are about 3.3 million teachers who worked to educate them. Of course there are some undesirable things that go on, and there are some teachers who do terrible things. But I’d like to thank the vast majority of teachers who taught and students who learned and who were exemplary in doing so. I continue to believe that our country’s commitment to providing a public education to all who will come serves us well and is the foundation of an educated, civilized society – the kind I want to live in!

As a society, we send all of our problems and issues to schoolhouse every day—issues like poverty, children with incarcerated parents, multiple languages spoken, mobility -- and then we criticize schools, all the while not providing all of the necessary resources to do the job we ask of them. If we can’t celebrate good news like improved graduation rates, then it’s we who are “failing”. Surely our schools and our students deserve better than that!

Three cheers for the Class of 2014 and for the public schools that educated them!