June is the new Friday

Most PR specialists tell you to drop bad news on Friday. Maybe the same is true for end of the school year. We’ve certainly had bad news this month.
Diploma Counts 2009, the annual EdWeek graduation rate study commissioned by the Gates Foundation, said “ While long-term trends have generally been encouraging, the EPE Research Center found that the nation’s graduation rate dropped markedly—by almost a point and a half—between 2005 and 2006. That is the first significant annual decline found in more than a decade.”
For someone that spent most of the last 10 years working on this problem it is discouraging to see the grad rate dip back below 70%. After opening hundreds of new urban high schools and most states signing the NGA Graduation Rate Compact , I thought we’d see a decade of steady increase.
What’s most depressing is the steep decline for African American students—something I need to understand better (help me if you do).
It’s also frustrating to be looking at three year old data. Walmart can tell you sales by SKU for yesterday and we don’t know how many kids graduated in 2007.
Let’s keep pushing for real grad rates, better high schools, and stronger supports—especially for African American urban youth.
The other bad news was the CREDO charter study which says ”this study reveals in unmistakable terms that, in the aggregate, charter students are not faring as well as their traditional public school counterparts.” On its face this is bad news—signs of a squandered opportunity to demonstrate the power of accountability for autonomy. Most disturbing were findings that suggested minority students and secondary students were not fairing as well in charter schools. Of the 4700 charters, there are clearly hundreds of schools that should not have been authorized and/or should have been non-renewed. That’s why the work of National Association of Charter School Authorizers is so important.
However, there’s more to the story. With so many young charters, there are a disproportionate percentage of first year students—more than half the charter records are first year students. The study shows that by the third year, charter students are performing higher than non-charter students in reading and math. In other words, the longer kids are in charters, the better they do. I suspect that a better student match methodology would have resulted in a much different overall conclusion.
The study didn’t review graduation rates, which I suspect are higher in charter high schools. Increased persistence means larger numbers of students taking exams—a slight dampening effect on test scores, but a great overall result.
A future CREDO study will undoubtedly show the power of charter management organizations—the place the charter sector really shines. CMOs and EMOs are producing reliable quality under the most challenging circumstances. They are organizations designed to bring quality to scale and to serve students least well served by traditional public schools.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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