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Who Are They?

Local media reported last week that the on-time graduation for the Oregon class of 2021 was 80.6%, representing a 2% decline from the previous year. This data is probably not particular to the State of Oregon. I anticipate similar disappointing data in other states as well. However, Oregon’s data is sufficient for me to make my points. First, let’s dig a little deeper.

In Washington County, one of the major suburban/rural counties near Portland, Oregon, 14 of its 23 high schools experienced a decline in their on-time graduation rate. There were 6,779 seniors in the class of 2021 graduation cohort county wide. Approximately 87% of them finished in four years. There could be any number of reasons for the decline in numbers. Can we say “pandemic” and “remote instruction” as a start? Regardless of the influence, the data is disappointing: certainly, to me as it should be in the communities where these kids reside.

I have two immediate reactions to this news. First, these young people are not data points. They are real, living, breathing human beings with hopes, aspirations, and futures. We need to consider the data differently. Not through a clinical or statistical lens, but through a human one.

Here’s what the data translates to me. In Washington County Oregon, where I reside, 883 kids did not receive a diploma in 2021 graduation exercises. 883! That’s a big number. That’s a lot of disappointment, frustration, and, while I pray not, the opportunity to feel shame or failure. Here’s how I really feel. We, the greater “we”: districts, schools, counties, communities let 883 students down. That doesn’t feel good.

Who are these young adults? I’m confident that there are some individual understandings by school counselors or a trusted adult regarding the obstacles that got in the way of individual students achieving this milestone. Systems can make promises of improvement, through well intended interventions, over time. That’s great. Today my concern rests with this year’s 883 kids.

Sir Ken Robinson reminded us: “Education is not a mechanical system. It’s a human system. . .. Every student who (doesn’t finish school) has a reason for it that is rooted in their biography. They may find it boring. They may find it irrelevant. They may find it at odds with the life they’re living outside of school.” Does our education system have a systemic, useful understanding of why this happened, to these kids, each of them, at this time? Not as a number imbedded in a data point, but as individuals. That must happen.

One of the school districts in my county, Tigard Tualatin School District, saw a modest gain in the on-time graduation rate in each of their three high schools. Do they possess a magic bullet? (It should be noted that all the high schools logged positive gains in the rate of on-time graduation, the greatest gains occurred at their “alternative” high school.) The director of secondary education was quoted as saying: “We have a pretty tight system where we pull our academic data every two weeks to know who is sitting in those different tiers of need of support, and then have a support team that wraps around providing academic support.” This administrator also added that the support team is mindful of the social, emotional, and basic needs of the targeted students. These efforts are to be congratulated. What they did was to personalize the data, with results that appear to have paid dividends. I hope there are opportunities for county-wide collaboration among other districts, sharing the wealth, as it were, to support those students at risk of not completing their education more effectively.

I can’t get passed the issue at hand-883 students, in one county.

The second reaction I have to this reporting is “on-time.” On-time? Who’s time? Who monitors the count down clock to assure things are finished “on-time?”

The notion that every student is expected to successfully complete their high school education in four years is a clear and classic example of a standardized system, or as Sir Ken might call it, a “mechanical system.” Kids enter high school at approximately 14 years old. (In standardized systems, children are typically grouped by age.) Many forward-thinking states and school systems are investing heavily in both fiscal resources and thought capital to assure student success during this freshman experience. There is a commonly held belief, one that may very well be accurate for most students, that the degree of success kids experience as freshman will set them on the right track to graduate “on-time.” (That seems to be a broad assumption. There are lots of unexpected things that can happen in the ensuing years before graduation.)

Accepting the accuracy of that assumption surrounding freshman year, kids chug through three more years of often siloed instruction to satisfy the accumulation of credits, in all the right places on a transcript, and invest the seat time, as required by the state, in this enterprise. If all goes well, if they fit the mold, if they’re compliant, if they “take care of business” they will pop out of the system at the end of four years, at about 18 years old. And, for this, they will be rewarded with the title of “on-time” graduate.

If I sound cynical, it’s because I am.

Think about the children in your life or children in your neighborhood. Line then up in your mind. Six of them. Or eight. I’m willing to bet your mind’s eye will see different body types, at least two skin tones. Some of these kids in your head are athletic while some prefer to spend their time with a book or gaming console. The point is that they are different from one another. Even though there may be some shared interests among them, they are unique. Because they are unique, each of these children will be adept at some things, while requiring assistance in other areas. And, I would venture to say, time is a variable for each of us in successfully acquiring skills. I know from my personal experience as a student that I learned some subjects more quickly than others, and in the subjects that weren’t my strengths, I would have gained a deeper understanding if it were not for the constraint of time. The expectation that four years is the correct amount of time for every child to complete high school is preposterous.

Let’s consider a personalized educational system. A personalized system is not time bound. It is not about “when.” It allows for elasticity of time. What matters in a personalized system is “what” and “how.” What do you, uniquely, as an individual, need to be successful? (That is equity in practice, by the way.) And how can I support you?

If the reported graduation data had been the product of a personalized, a humanized system, two things would be remarkably different.

1. The reported data would simply reflect the number of students who completed high school. Period. Not how long it took. Only the number of kids who received a diploma during a given year.

2. Any tendencies to feel shame or failure would disappear. A personalized system does not say “time’s up.” Rather, it conveys “not yet, keep on.”

I hope that 883 kids in my county didn’t walk away because they believe their allotted time is exhausted.

I hope that 883 students in my county will not cave in due to a lack of a personal connection or relevance to what they are expected to learn.

I hope 883 young people in my county will persist in reaching the milestone of completing high school: “I’m getting there. I’m just not there yet.”

And that we have the grace to allow, and support, their grit and effort.


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