Recently, Indianapolis House member Bob Benhing (do I even need to add the political party designation?) filed a bill which was, for all intents and purposes, a reaction to the statewide announcement that graduation rates had increased…quite a lot, actually.
Benhing’s specific beef is with the state’s widespread use of waivers which allow kids who fail what was once called the ISTEP (now euphemistically called the ECA or “End of Course Assessment”) to still earn a diploma with the help of teacher recommendations, grades, and other evidence which demonstrates competence. Benhing’s assertion is that, without the glut of waivers, Indiana’s graduation rate would have been below 80% instead of the almost 86% reported in 2011.
On the one hand, let’s be fair. If we’re talking about setting the bar high and expecting people to meet a set of standards. From this point-of-view, all the kids who work hard and earn stellar GPA’s have the right to walk across the podium, and take their diploma knowing that they achieved something that didn’t come easy. The argument from this side is that, watching kids who “under-performed” also earn a diploma diminishes, and maybe even cheapens, the entire effort. If that sounds a little too hyperbolic (something I get accused of being all the time for some strange reason), then it at the very least seems to undermine the point of even spending the money on a standardized test to begin with.
I also see Benhing’s point from this angle, too: Who among us would want to be rescued from a Pakistani terrorist compound by a group of Navy Seals with a 98% graduation rate? Who would want to watch an NFL or MLB team that kept almost 100% of the players who tried out for the squads? Remember what happened to the pitching in the MLB every time the league expanded? Would Harvard be Harvard if it accepted everyone who applied? Would Congress be what it is if we just accepted everybody who wanted to serve there…? Okay…that last one was a bad analogy, but you get Benhing’s point…thus far.
All of this, thus far, makes great sense, and raises incredibly valid points. As an AP teacher, specifically I love the idea of setting a high marker and watching people epically struggle along the order of An Officer and a Gentleman to reach it (however, I cannot quite set that bar as high as I wish because of the time limitations of the seven-period day which I mentioned recently in this post).
All of this is a great argument when we’re talking about watching professional athletes, or praying for salvation from elite Special Forces.
And that, my friends, is where the neat and tidy argument hits a major snag.
Let me start with a former student of mine, “Vince” who was not in my AP classes, not in my second-tier honors classes, either. He was in the class we called “regular” English (a term I have avoid using because it feels like I’m talking about those kids as if they’re a type of gasoline). He wasn’t the most prolific writer, and he didn’t hit the ball out of the park as a math student, either. But one talent that kid has was working with motors. Vince could rebuild an engine with a butter-knife, some chewing gum, and shoelace. It was enough to make MacGyver jealous. Once, when one of the cars he was working on lost all five forward gears, he drove it home, half a mile, in reverse. By the modern definition of the “model” student, Vince is simply not one. But, if Vince went to school twenty or thirty years ago, no one would have questioned his right to walk across that stage.
That’s the problem I have with this “bar” that we’ve created for graduates, today. In Vince’s class, I had a dozen kids who could write as well as a neighboring DePauw upper-classman, but I couldn’t think of a second kid at all who could do the things Vince could to an automobile. In the real world, we all have to take the car to the shop, but how many of us find ourselves needing to take a manuscript to a “writing mechanic”?
Another concern is the nearly pernicious message we’re sending to kids as they move through the system. We’re going to take a kid who has advanced every grade for a dozen years, and now, just at the end, we’re suddenly going to say, “Sorry, you’re not good enough to be a part of society?” If we take a young man, one with special needs, one who will never (let’s be honest, here) be responsible for the coolant system in a nuclear reactor, and we say, “You can’t participate in real life…” how does that help society?
So, when it comes to the matter of high school graduation rates, we’re stuck with two conflicting philosophies: Either we set the bar rigidly high and tell those who fail, “too bad,” or we decide that everyone comes in at different levels with different skill sets, and we make them better at what they are naturally inclined to do.
Are schools information and skill factories designed to produce “products” of equal quality? Or are school places where adults, trained to deal with the adolescent mind, help children from all socio-economic backgrounds adapt to the transition to adulthood, so that they begin the real learning that takes place in adult life? It’s increasingly clear that people like Benhing, and the ALEC-funded/driven cabal which pays for their world-view, are not really that interested in kids, or in actual “schooling” for that matter. And even those among them who do care about the quality of schools, must not be aware of how their passions are being exploited by those who writing their agenda for them.