The 2013 calendar year has ended. Public school systems throughout Massachusetts have submitted their data and state officials have concluded that our schools are producing more graduates and fewer drop-outs. While the numbers also indicate that there are still significant gaps between "cohorts," the overall report is positive. President Obama is reporting similar gains at the national level.
There is no reason to believe that the data supplied by school systems is tainted or that any superintendent would countenance false reports.
The statistical improvements are probably real enough. However, each of these reported gains should be tagged with a CAUTION sign.
Measurement by benchmarks can be misleading. The critical question is how have these gains been accomplished? If more schools have found ways to engage more students in authentic learning and genuine academic accomplishment, then there is just cause for optimism and celebration. But if some students, particularly those who demonstrate a pattern of stubborn and persistent pushback against their schools, are kept on board by simply treating their disruptive behavior with greater institutional tolerance, does anyone really benefit? To what degree is a destructive or self-destructive citizen armed with a diploma preferable to one without such a document?
Our nation produces more than a million drop-outs each year and that poses serious problems for all of us. However, unproductive and disruptive students who are carried to the finish line and handed diplomas by their schools still lack the skills, social and academic, that they require to constructively engage with society. Without question, these children are victims, some raised in poverty, many in dysfunctional households that would make Jerry Springer gush with anticipation.
Many are extremely bright but they frequently engage the world with anger, brute force and unrestrained profanity, unable to temper their hostility to accommodate classroom requirements. They might lunge at each other over a romantic conflict or a text message. They may direct venomous words at a teacher who asks them to turn around and stop talking or turn off a cell phone. They are often based in special programs within their schools and their teachers must be extraordinarily patient and tolerant to withstand their verbal and occasionally, their physical attacks. Often, their lives are filled with frustration and self-loathing. The only predictable aspect of their personalities is that they will frequently behave unpredictably.
Our society is quick to blame one of its favorite scapegoats, "failing schools," for the problem. We attack this problem with benchmarks. The state and federal government team up to use a carrot and stick approach to coax incremental statistical progress from each school system. Statistical progress earns school systems financial incentives and more favorable designations while failure earns public condemnation and the possibility of a state takeover. With this kind of pressure on each principal and superintendent, it is not surprising that statistical progress has become an absolute priority. It should also come as no surprise that some school systems find it necessary to tolerate disrespect, disruption and even occasional violence in order to meet their drop-out reduction and attendance benchmarks.
We have placed most of our eggs in the benchmark basket and left the really important and far more promising approaches to groups like Pittsfield Promise. They are trying to improve parenting by emphasizing the critical importance of early childhood experiences and their impact on academic success. Pittsfield Promise supports programs that educate parents about the value of reading to and interacting with their young children. They acknowledge the critical teaching role of parents as teachers.
This approach will take time, patience and additional financial resources and there will be many adjustments ahead. But it has the potential to pay authentic dividends. It makes far more sense to invest energy and resources into preventing problems rather than figuring out how to cope with them or how to portray them in a more favorable light.
With each new year, the state ratchets up its expectations and communities with a significant concentration of resistant students have no choice but to carry them along for the ride. Leaving these students by the side of the road means an unmet benchmark and the likelihood of disastrous publicity, the withdrawal or reduction of financial support and the possibility of uninvited outside intervention. Pockets of resistant students will be coaxed to remain in school, consuming a generous percentage of time and sapping the energy from those responsible for teaching and "discipline." Many will complete high school only to discover that they lack the skills and attitude required to succeed in an increasingly demanding economy.
They are pawns in a numbers game that often values statistical gains above authentic achievement. When it comes to statistical progress, perception is not always reality.
Edward Udel is a long-time teacher in the Pittsfield public school system and former chairman of the Taconic English department.