Happy talk won’t raise grad rates


By Jim Waters - Bluegrass Beacon



It’s bad enough that Washington, D.C.-area groups use Kentucky’s inflated high school graduation rates to make wild claims about how the commonwealth is a leader among states in handing out diplomas and closing graduation gaps between poor and better-off students.

Feel-good reports like the Johns Hopkins School of Education and Civic Enterprises’ study, “For all Kids: How Kentucky is Closing the High School Graduation Gap for Low-Income Students,” simply drive the volume of happy talk backing the status quo in Kentucky up another level.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to figure out that since there are no common standards from state to state concerning what students need in order to earn a quality high school diploma, there can be no meaningful comparison of states’ graduation rates.

Certainly, no credible claims can be made that education gaps are closing between poor and more-fortunate students.

However, to further assert that Kentucky is closing those gaps because it refuses to allow charter schools makes the entire report suitable for little more than placement in the bottom of bird cages.

No amount of happy talk can cover up the ludicrousness of such a claim, especially considering a recent report from the much-more respected Mathematica Policy Research group found students attending charter high schools in Florida and Chicago were more likely to graduate, enroll in college and complete at least two years of some kind of post-secondary education, not to speak of earning a 13-percent higher income between the ages of 23 and 25 than their peers who attended traditional schools.

Neither can the Hopkins report hide the fact that no one from the education bureaucracy displays much interest in addressing the failure of Kentucky school districts to abide by state standards supposedly required to earn a diploma.

If education leaders were paying attention, they wouldn’t be bragging about an 88 percent graduation rate when the proficiency rate on the commonwealth’s Algebra II End-of-Course exam has not exceeded 40 percent during the past four years.

Why aren’t Kentucky’s education leaders requiring districts to abide by regulations stipulating that competency in Algebra II be a high school graduation requirement?

Leaders also should not be cheering when only about 67 percent of Kentucky’s 2015 high school graduates were able to meet at least one of the various methods used to establish college and career readiness.

Figure this into the graduation equation and you will find out that while 88 percent of Kentucky students who enter high school may indeed wear a robe, walk across a stage and flip tassels, fewer than 60 percent of entering ninth-graders are leaving the commonwealth’s public school ready for college or career.

That’s an effective graduation rate below 60 percent for which no amount of happy talk can remedy.

Meanwhile, Kentucky is a bottom feeder in nearly every credible workforce-development category done by any credible publication, even as we have employers wanting to expand but who are greatly hindered by a lack of adequately prepared workers.

According to Wayne D. Lewis Jr., Ph.D., executive director of education programs in the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet and an associate professor of education leadership at the University of Kentucky, the Bluegrass State’s labor-force participation rate of less than 58 percent ranked No. 47 out of 50 U.S. states and the District of Columbia in 2015.

“In sum, not nearly enough Kentuckians are working, and a major factor contributing to our labor force woes is our failure to equip all of our students with the knowledge and skills needed for gainful employment,” Lewis wrote in “The Education Policy Matters” blog. “That failure has in turn led to our challenges with attracting companies with high wage jobs to Kentucky, jobs that require a pipeline of skilled workers. There is no doubt about it, we have to do better.”

Finally, some real talk to replace the happy gibberish.

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By Jim Waters

Bluegrass Beacon

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute; Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com. Read previously published columns at www.bipps.org.

Jim Waters is president of the Bluegrass Institute; Kentucky’s free-market think tank. Reach him at jwaters@freedomkentucky.com. Read previously published columns at www.bipps.org.

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