Thursday, March 20, 2008

Who, me graduate?

Mississippi reports to the Federal Government that 87% of its high school kids graduate. But the bureaucrats need to please the system, so they lie. Actually only 63.3% graduate. But let’s not pick on Missisippi when the figures for California are similar: 83 and 67, respectively.

It all has to do with this peachy keen Bush Education policy called No Child Left Behind where the focus is on testing and not on what it takes to finish school. Somebody pointed out that that’s like measuring the kids yard by yard in a marathon and having no idea who finishes the race.

Those numbers translate to 13,000 Mississippi dropouts out each year, and in California the figure is more like 150,000.

If you pick the figures apart, it gets more interesting. 23% of ninth graders in California graduate with a grade of C or better. The reason that average is so high is the figure for Asian Americans is 50% and 31% for white students. If you look at the rates for African Americans and Latinos, those rates are 14% and 12% respectively. Some kids start high school with both hands tied behind their backs.

Now that can’t be right, right? The San Francisco Chronicle has got to have the figures wrong, right?

Well, maybe. Check it out.

I watched a group of “ordinary citizens” discuss the Iraq war yesterday on its fifth anniversary on the Lehrer Report. One guy with very forceful opinions insisted you could tell the war was working because no terrists had struck us since the war began. Forgive me, Mr. I-Fought-in-the-War-So-I-Know if I do you an injustice here, but I wonder if there is a correlation with that line of thinking and the 150,000 dropouts. If we were to measure academic success by functional means rather than percentage scores on tests, “argues a conclusion on the basis of null evidence” would be a good negative criterion.

Racism is in the political discourse these days, and that’s healthy. But why aren’t we talking about education? Education, like health care and unemployment and the housing crisis, can only be dealt with sensibly by an informed public, so I understand we can’t expect the boob tube to handle the job. Which is where we most of us get our information.

But we also can't blame the instrument for our failure to use it properly. If all these bean counters and trackers of the horse race would ask questions about how we might fix America’s devastating crises, and hold the feet of Obama, HC and McCain to the fire once in a while, maybe we’d hear of ways to do something about them.

Then again, maybe not. With fewer than half of us graduating from high school in some places, how would we understand their answers?


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