Now, about those record-high graduation rates
I’m far more concerned with the way the numbers are interpreted rather than counted.
“I have no doubt we will be the best district in the country because of the momentum we are seeing,” CEO Pedro Martinez said at an event at Amundsen High School on the city's North Side. “Students, it’s because of you.” — Chalkbeat
“This record graduation rate isn’t just a statistic, it represents a revolution in how we value education in our city, and how we support our students’ futures.” — Mayor Lori Lightfoot.
Great news, right? Chicago is reporting record-high graduation rates for the second year in a row with upticks for students of all races. Not bad, in the middle of a pandemic, with the past year spent with teachers teaching and kids trying to learn while sitting full-time in front of a computer.
CPS reports that 83.8% of its students graduated in five years in 2021, compared with a rate of 82.5% last year. The four-year rate declined slightly, from 80.8% in 2020 to 80.2% this school year. The district also touted its lowest-ever dropout rate of just below 4%.
These amazing gains come after a year of largely remote learning, marked by increases in failing grades and drops in attendance, especially for students of color. As recently as 2010, the overall rate was only about 55%.
High school graduation remains a strong indicator of a host of important life outcomes, including postsecondary and employment outcomes, health, incarceration, and life expectancy. How’s that for pressure, kids?
Some district leaders attribute the gains to “student resilience” or “grit.” The mayor attributes it to a “revolution in values.” I don’t doubt the mayor’s commitment to public education. It’s far stronger than that of any of the past few mayors we’ve had. I only question some of the hyperbole.
When CEO Martinez tells students that the jump is “because of you,” I worry about the other side of that equation. Who will catch the blame when and if those rates fall?
Although I haven’t been inside a CPS school in the past two years, I have never doubted the resilience of city kids or the skill and commitment of Chicago teachers. I’ve witnessed both firsthand as an educator, coach, and a CPS parent for decades. I don’t need to see a slight bump in test score numbers or grad rates to know that. Those numbers actually speak more to the conditions for learning, inside and outside of school than to any secret sauce ed reformers have cooked up.
Yet, over the years, I’ve remained skeptical of reports showing big “miraculous” jumps graduation rates, especially those that come despite austerity, neighborhood gun violence, massive school closings, and genrally worsening conditions for children and their families both in and out of school.
I don’t think district leaders are lying or intentionally juking the stats (although they have been caught doing just that in the past), or changing the way things are measured and thus comparing apples to oranges.
No, I’m more concerned with the way the numbers are interpreted rather than counted and how they’re often used to justify bad educational practices or to ignore the impact of racism or poverty on measurable learning outcomes.
As a researcher, I’m also aware of the tyranny of averages. That is when rich and poor kids’ schools are lumped together to produce a misleading average. Wasn’t it Hillary Clinton who at one point declared: "I wouldn’t keep any school open that wasn’t doing a better than average job.”?
Enrollment in Chicago Public Schools dropped dramatically again this fall as the pandemic appears to be exacerbating a decade-long slide. So when you take a school district like CPS that has been bleeding 10,000 students/year for the past 20 years, can you still boast about a slight jump in grad rates without adding lots of qualifiers? Surely the loss of a quarter-million students from mostly low-income families over the past few decades created an upward push on both test scores and graduation rates.
Ponder that while considering the impact of gentrification and the pushout of black families on the city’s neighborhood schools.
If you’d like to receive my newsletter each morning in your mailbox, feel free to hit the SUBSCRIBE button and join the Edu/Pol community either as a free or as a paid subscriber. The latter the better.
Thanks in advance.