No Good Deed Goes Unpunished

This year it happened on the second day of school.

I was told there was a young man waiting in the office to see me.  My secretary gave me the heads up—he was 18, had moved in with someone in the district, and wanted to come to our school.
 
His glasses were broken and he needed a shave, and it didn’t help that he had a hard time looking me in the eye because of his nervousness.  The story was one I have heard every school year in one form or another.  Jeff (not his real name) had left home and landed in our backyard because of a girl he had met on a visit to the area.  Living with her family, he wanted to come back to school and try to graduate.

Jeff was earnest enough; he claimed to have heard we were a good school, and he knew he could not make it without graduating from high school.  Much to his credit he had come with a copy of his high school transcript.  A good start, but we would still need a birth certificate and shot record, things he was not quite sure how to get.

Ten years ago the decision would be easy.  Even though we do not have to enroll students over 18, especially if they are not ‘officially’ a resident, we would let him try.  But now the rules have changed, and to let Jeff come to my high school puts our standing with the State of Ohio in jeopardy.

Jeff is potentially a drop out; not only has he experienced limited school success, he has yet to pass two of the five tests the state requires for graduation.  If I admit him and he decides to quit, or does not pass the state tests, he will count against our graduation rate.  If we don’t graduate 90% of our students we lose a point on our state report card…and with 85 kids in the class of 2010 Jeff could cost us dearly.

The problem is that federal and state policies are not focused on encouraging schools to take a chance on the Jeffs of the world.  Why admit a student who will drag down the school’s chance of meeting AYP or staying out of ‘school improvement’ if you don’t have to?  We get no credit for helping Jeff, but there will be a price to pay if we try and are not successful in getting him to graduate.  Even though the first seventeen years of his education was somewhere else, we will now stand solely responsible for his success or failure.

This simply must change.  All over the nation schools are playing tricks to avoid the punishments of state and federal accountability systems.  Tricks like pushing out students who will struggle with testing programs, or encouraging potential dropouts to leave school voluntarily and enter into a GED program, or refusing to let Jeff come to school.  Every one of these tricks, and dozens more, is an attempt to game the system to avoid punishment.

The Forum for Democracy and Education has recently written to Secretary Duncan in response to the ‘Race to the Top’ initiative and pointed out how the current accountability system works against schools that admit the Jeffs of the world.  From our letter:

There has been much discussion about NCLB’s “push-out effect”—a phenomenon in which poor performing students are encouraged to leave school in order to improve schools’ Annual Yearly Progress performance. The Forum is deeply concerned that the Race to the Top guidance contains language that may unintentionally accelerate, rather than reverse, the push-out effect.

Specifically, the Race to the Top Fund considers the extent to which a State “has ambitious yet achievable annual targets for increasing graduation rates.” Although this is a laudable goal, the guidance does not provide complementary instructions that ask the State to set similar targets for decreasing dropout rates.  With the focus on four-year graduation rates, there are many incentives not to keep or re-admit students who would take longer than four years to graduate, who struggle academically, are credit deficient, have left school due to pregnancy, homelessness, incarceration, illness, or other reasons.  Without this instruction, the incentive to push poor performing students out of the system is magnified.

I can only hope that policy makers might actually listen this time around to the voices from the field who work every day with students like Jeff.
 
In the meantime you should know that we admitted Jeff, and his girlfriend (who had stopped out from high school a year ago) as well.  If we manage to make all the right things happen they will both graduate this year and have a much better chance in life than they currently face.  If things don’t break their (and our) way, we will take a 2.3% drop in our graduation rate and probably not make state standards.  But at least we will have done the right thing, regardless of how the bureaucrats in Columbus and Washington see it.