Wednesday, March 30, 2011

From Rock Hill, a rational view of high school graduation rates

Editors of the Rock Hill Herald published an editorial yesterday that sounded downright rational.

At present, when students don't graduate high school, we sound the alarm, raise the red flag, count numbers, hold press conferences and then, at the end of the torturous process, blame the teachers. If firing some of them is a viable option, then we fire some of them, too. Then we check the sports page to see if the local team is playing at home or away this Friday.

But the Herald, quoting in part York County's superintendent, takes a refreshing new view:

The American tradition of attending high school for four years and then walking across a stage to collect a diploma seems to work well for most students. Even in schools with relatively low graduation rates, most students earn a diploma four years after starting 9th grade.

But Rock Hill schools Superintendent Lynn Moody says that while she understands why states compile records on graduation rates, the approach might be outdated.

"I am much more interested in how many students graduate - not when," Moody said. "What's magical about four years?"

But such a position is too rational for political discourse. There's no hook.

South Carolina's modern political rulebook is clear on this: For effective governing, there must be insult, then injury, then blame, then budget cuts and amendments, then teachers must lose jobs. When Johnny doesn't graduate high school in four years with a diploma and get a good low-paying job down at the plant, then the pattern can be followed: Johnny didn't graduate because he can't read, which is because he wasn't taught, which is because educators get paid too much, which means we have to cut the budget and amend the law, and fire a teacher. The system works. This is how people get elected to the legislature. Change any part of it, and the whole thing could fall apart. We will have chaos.

This is precisely what the Herald editors are unwittingly doing: changing a part of the pattern.

We think Moody also makes an important point. If some students can graduate in four and a half years of high school instead of just four, that shouldn't be a black mark for the school or the student.

The important thing is for students ultimately to learn the skills they will need to make their way in the world. For most, that will include going on to a two-year or four-year college or undergoing some special training beyond the high school level.

Skills needed to compete in the workplace have become more complex in recent decades, and, for most, high school no longer provides all a student needs to be successful.

We might be inclined to wring our hands about the dip in graduation rates across the state. But before we do, we need to consider all the factors involved in putting together the numbers.

In other words, declining graduation rates are considerably less worrisome if students are earning their degrees somewhere down the road.

I think it's safe to say the editors of the Herald will get an earful the next time they sit down with a certain new governor of South Carolina. Even-tempered, rational thinking of this sort is no way to shrink government and cut public sector jobs. Perhaps she will tell them that editors should stick to editing and leave the thinking to be done under the Capitol dome.

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