Posted by: bkivey | 8 March 2012

Hand-Wringing High

On 27 January the local paper of record published a story on the high school graduation rate in Oregon, where currently less than 70% of students graduate in four years. This is an improvement over the past couple of years, but far worse than the 77% rate recorded during the 07 -08 school year. There is much justified hand-wringing and wailing over the inability of 1/3 of the state’s teenagers to get through high school, but a reading of the article gives a couple of clues to the problem.

The very first sentence in the story:

“Oregon high schools again failed to graduate one of every three students last year, figures out today show.”

suggests that schools are little more than factories where raw material (students) enters and finished product (graduates) leaves.  A couple of paragraphs later, the story continues in the same vein:

“Most of Oregon’s large and medium-size districts failed to get even 70 percent of the students who entered high school in fall 2007 to earn a diploma within four years.”

The governor picks up on the theme:

“But we all must work to deliver better results for Oregon students.”

Und so geht es. The mindset among the educational and political leadership follows the Progressive creed: The life of the individual is defined by forces beyond their control or understanding, and it’s up to their betters to provide for them.

If there is a collective failure to meet standards, then the cause must be, can only be, lack of government resources. Or socioeconomic conditions, or family circumstances, or ethnic history, or something, but always an external cause, never individual motivation. The person is something to be molded and formed by the State, with little or no consideration for, or expectation of, individual effort. This attitude violates the Third Rule of Management, with concomitant results.  I’ve read a news story in which a teacher complained that their job was made more difficult by children of immigrants who showed up in class with zero preparation. They remarked that they showed up, and just expected to be taught and accommodated. Well, yeah, because that’s the message the education industry sends: If you can’t meet expectations, that’s our fault, not yours.

Of all the educational institutions I’ve attended, the teachers with the highest standards were in junior high (yes, back in the day it was junior high, not middle school). The school I went to was the former black high school (W.E.B. DuBois) during segregation. Located in the black section of town, a world away from the white middle-class neighborhood I lived in, you’d think  that teachers would accept that external factors over which they had no control would determine student performance. That would be the modern establishment thought, but fortunately for the students, the teachers and staff were ignorant of progressive socioeconomic theory.

On the first day of school, principal Mr. George Coburn, a black man with a commanding presence, would walk into assembly with a large paddle (corporal punishment was very much a part of discipline), and lay down the law, from personal hygiene to academic expectations. These expectations were echoed by the teachers, most of whom were black, all of whom demanded the best from their students. Most students did their best to meet standards, because failure to do so would mean either a date with the teacher’s paddle, or an audience with Mr. Coburn.

You’ll notice that the methods used by the school staff to ensure discipline and performance didn’t cost a dime. The facilities were old, the textbooks were old, the grounds were mostly dirt sparsely covered with grass, but the teachers understood that success comes from internal motivation and the expectation of high, but achievable, standards.

Compare that to the vast array of services and options available to the modern high school student. There are ESL classes, after-school tutoring, college-credit classes, parent outreach programs, day care facilities, birth control counseling and distribution, free meals during non-school periods, and in some schools, full tuition scholarships to an in-state university. Considering the level of resource commitment, you’d think that graduation rates would be at an all-time high.

The fact is that after peaking at about 80% in the 1980’s, the US high school graduation rate has remained in the 70% – 75% range for a number of years. In Oregon the rate was steady in the low 70’s throughout the Ought’s, and is now in the upper 60’s. While doing research for this post, I noticed that state-by-state graduation rates have been fairly flat, despite hundreds of billions of dollars spent on education nationwide. In some categories, like black graduation percentage, the success rate is actually lower than it was in the 1940’s. We’ve built an enormously expensive and far-reaching bureaucracy to ‘improve’ education, and have, in some cases, less than nothing to show for it.

Every system has practical limits for cost-effective use of resources, and I would say that the data suggests that the practical limit for high school graduation rates driven by external resources is about 75% – 80%. History demonstrates that we can achieve those rates with a lot less money than we spend now. Unless and until the education establishment relearns the lessons of the past; that the motivation to achieve must come from within, then we’re doomed to spend resources on a fruitless quest to get results.

Astral Conjunction

Anyone who has looked to the sky after sunset has seen a spectacular sight; the convergence of Venus and Jupiter. While the conjunction of the two brightest planets is not unusual, this convergence is special. Both planets are visible for about four hours after sunset, and Venus is especially brilliant; noteworthy because the plant is only 60% full. On March 12 -13, the two planets will be only three degrees apart. As a bonus, all five of the naked-eye planets are visible this month. Mercury can be sighted low in the West just after sunset, while Mars is just above the Eastern horizon at the same time. Saturn rises in the early  morning hours and is visible until sunrise. So you can’t see all of the planets at the same time, but it’s unusual to see them all in the same night.

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