The Graduation Rate 
By Alex Saitta 
February 27, 2012 
 
 
 
Definition:  
When people talk about the graduation rate, they are actually talking about the on-time graduation rate. (In fact, there is no calculation just called the "graduation rate.")  
 
The on-time graduation rate is calculated by taking the number of students in 9th grade, and seeing what percentage of those students graduated on time 4 years later. For instance, if a 9th grader in 2007 graduated in June of 2011, he would be considered to have graduated on-time. If he dropped out or graduated after June of 2011, he would not be considered an on-time graduate. 
 
In Pickens County the on-time graduation rate is 72.6%. 
 
The Problem: 
When looking at grade by grade enrollment levels, the problem is glaring and has been for a long time. Looking back 4 years, usually there is something like 1,500 9th graders. Then in 12th grade, this year, youíll see a figure in the 1,050 area. That is, only about 70% of the students make it to 12th grade on time.  
 
The on-time graduation rate for the School District of Pickens County has been 72.6% (2011), 71.2% (2010), 72.6% (2009), 66.7% (2008), 75.4% (2007), 78.6% (2006), 77.8% (2005) and 81.7% (2004). 
 
The absolute level of 72.6% isnít good and neither is the trend. 
 
Why Is The Graduation Rate So Low? 
I think the low graduation rate is rooted in four things.  
 
One, it is due to the breakdown of the family. Many parents are no longer on the education team because they have more pressing problems than their childís homework. The absence of one or both parents has given way to social issues in childrenís lives and psychological issues in their heads that has made many less likely to absorb or take-to an academic lesson. As a result, these students are at-risk of dropping out or not finishing high school on time.  
 
For example, many students are not learning to behave correctly at home. They donít behave well in the classroom so they arenít ready to receive an academic lesson. Some have emotional issues of need or abandonment that are more pressing, so education is not their primary concern. Others have not had the value of an education instilled in them by their families.    
 
For example, many of these children have a lot of unsupervised time. Often they end up in front of the TV or some video game, and they are being raised by the entertainment industry. Hollywood, the music industry and cable TV are feeding our teens damaging adult themes which make them less accepting of an academic lesson.  
 
What is Kim Kardashianís message to my young daughters? Girls, youíll excel in life by being sexual. Look at Hollywoodís coming of age movies where our youth are told life is all about having fund, so just party 24-7. No education message there either. Have you watched MTV and the gangster rap culture that teaches our teens using 4 letter words is the right thing to do? Can you imagine how disruptive a classroom would be if students acted and talked like gangster rappers? Have you seen all the shooting, axing and unnecessary violence in video games? If teens act anywhere close to that in the classroom, are they or anyone else going to learn anything?  
 
Second, many students are not motivated to learn.  
 
For example, many students don't see the link between what they are learning in school and the career they hope to have. Thus, they aren't motivated to apply themselves to their lessons. 
 
For example, in elementary school students are like sponges. When they reach middle school, many students become consumed with their cellphone, their facebook page, the Aeropostale clothing line, boyfriends/girlfriends or the latest American Idolís hairdo. Education drops down their totem pole of values. This social problem or competition for the studentís attention makes that student less motivated to learn, and hence more at-risk of dropping out.   
 
My point here is an adult can handle this ďentertainmentĒ. Adults know it is just a movie or a game and do not consume themselves with any of that. Nor do they make it part of who they are. Teens are not developed enough emotionally and intellectually to make that correct judgment. This is another social problem pouring into our classroom.   
 
Third, school boards and district administrations have done a poor job of dealing with these social and psychological problems. Too many of our educational leaders have not been in the classroom for a decade or decades. They donít realize how the family breakdown combined with a declining culture has affected students and their ability/ willingness to learn.  
 
Also, too many of our leaders know one thing, education. They are academics and their tool box contains only academic tools or prescriptions. They lack clinical degrees, training and experience to successfully deal with these social and psychological challenges. We all need to be problem solvers. Not academics or financial analysts in my case.   
 
Frankly, with many of our at-risk students, we donít have an academic problem. We have a social and psychological problem and we are managing it poorly.   
 
We Must Better Manage It: 
A lot of people will say, we canít control the breakdown of the family and what the entertainment and marketing industries are throwing at our children, hence educators shouldnít be judged by things like test scores or the graduation rate. I disagree.   
 
The number one rule in management is: Control what you can control. Manage what you canít.  
 
For example, I can not control rising gasoline prices. I manage the situation, however, so my car remains of value to me, instead of bankrupting me. I bought a high mpg car (a 1998 Civic that gets 35 mpg). I keep it tuned up, the tires filled with the right air pressure and I drive slower to keep my mpgís up.  
 
School district administrators are being paid to understand and effectively manage these problems that are lowering our graduation rate. It is not the responsibility of a teacher to come up with system wide solutions so we can all better manage these problems.  
 
Ineffective Response By Educational Leaders: 
When I see the academic performance of our students, they fall into three categories (the categories of the PASS test) ó exemplary students, students who have met the standard for their grade, and those who have failed to meet the standard or are testing below grade level. 
 
Those who ultimately drop out, first fall below grade level. It seems like our main stream schools are applying two approaches to address that.  
 
One, have/ are applying an academic prescription that often includes improving the teachers with professional development, providing better technology in the classroom with things like Pro-Boards, or improving the academic lesson by adopting things like the Core Curriculum or scope and sequence.  
 
Two, to their credit our principals have evolved and realize they must motivate students to apply the required effort. In response, most schools are employing an economic prescription, dangling incentives above students to motivate them. This economic approach gives scholarships to college for Aís and Bís grades, rewards students who perform well on tests with special trips and party invitations to those students who read the most books.  
 
The school district and school board intensely applied the academic prescription system wide under the DíAndrea administration ó better trained teachers, better technology (Pro-Boards, laptops, etc.) and a curriculum that was scoped and sequenced.  
 
While individual schools are applying economic incentives, Iíve yet to see a district wide effort to incentivize students to put forth more effort.   
 
Who Responded? Who Hasnít? 
Who has responded to these academic and economic prescriptions? Exemplary students as well as many of those who are meeting the standard. These students are well adjusted, have parents who are involved in their studies and they have ample motivation to learn. They are ready to accept these improved academic lessons and have responded to the economic incentives to put forth more effort.  
 
The at-risk student who comes into school and puts his head on his desk and goes to sleep, isnít responding to this academic and economic prescription. That is, a teacher who is trained to deliver a better Algebra lesson, has a dazzling new Pro-Board or dangles a field trip above this studentís head isnít having any luck in educating him/ her. This student is impervious to these turned up academic and economic approaches that are regularly employed at our mainstream schools. 
 
In here lies the problem with our graduation rate. What do we do with the student who doesnít respond to the academic/ economic incentive prescription we are applying? 
 
If you ask a surgeon what should we do about my heart, heíll say operate. If you ask him what should we do about this hangnail, heíll say operate.  
 
Dr. Lee DíAndrea was an academic and her tool box was filled with academic tools. In my opinion she saw the world through an academic prism and thought if we just better trained our teachers, equipped our classrooms with better technology and used a curriculum that was scoped and sequenced, all students would improve academically. Well, performance improved for the students who were eager to accept an academic lesson (the students at the top). If you look at the test scores, the academic performance of our brightest students (college bound) improved. The districtís SAT and ACT rankings rose from about sixth or seventh in the state to the top three.    
 
The economic prescriptions being applied at the school levels is working with those students too. My daughter is reading those 5 books she needs to read in order to get to go to the Greenville Drive baseball game in May.  
 
However, the bottom section of students showed no improvement when DíAndrea turned up the academic prescription. Nor are those students responding to the economic incentives being offered at our schools. The graduation rate has not improved, and more students are failing to test at grade level on the PASS.  
 
In sum, the districtís beefed up academic and economic prescription worked for students who were accepting of an academic lesson, but it failed for the rest. The academic/ economic formula we are now applying is an inappropriate one for at-risk students who are suffering from the social and psychological issues I described above.   
 
Trying to turn up the academic effort even more, like instituting things like TAP (intense teacher professional development) is like swinging a hammer even harder at a screw, hoping to finally turn it. The at-risk students didnít respond to the first few swings. More of the same wonít work either. Theyíre failing and driven by various district rules and board policies, these students are being pushed out of our educational system in vast numbers.  
 
And we wonder why our graduation rate is so low.   
 
Again, the primarily problem with these at-risk students isnít academic. Rather it is a social and psychological problem that we are poorly managing.   
 
Public education has made a mistake to rely on life long educators (academics) who know only how to provide academic prescriptions to whatever problem they face. Frankly, we need problem solvers or those who will see the problem for what it is ó primarily social and psychological, and deal with it with the appropriate prescription.  
 
Whatís The Prescription? 
The school boardís addressing of the graduation rate was kicked off when the subject was sent the Instruction Committee. There Dr. Henry Hunt and his assistants, Dr. Pew and Dr. Merck, worked with the committee members as well as principals to come up with the 80% graduation rate goal in 5 years.  
 
Prescription 1: Academic 
Dr. Pew has presented some initial steps that we hope will be the first the district will take on down the path toward 80%. They include reinstating two half-day programs for 4K in the elementary schools and adding a reading teacher at each school who will focus on students who are not reading at grade level. Not reading at grade level seems to be the primary indicator of students who fall off the graduation path.  
 
Other academic solutions may include programs within middle and high schools like Bridge and Fast Track, where students at-risk of dropping out are put in smaller classes that focus on areas they are below grade level in (mainly Math and English).  
 
Prescription 2: Economic Incentives 
The economic incentives to motivate students to put forth more effort have cropped up at schools. My hope is during this process the district leadership get off the sidelines and address the question of how can this district better motivate students to put forth more effort in their studies?  
 
A system wide approach may entail the district office getting teachers together to talk about methods they are using to motivate students to study longer and harder. Which are working? Which arenít?  
 
It may entail asking the students who are not motivated, why that is the case? Also, asking what will motivate you? 
 
I know this economic incentive tool isnít one thatís in the typical school board member's or district administratorís toolbox, but it is a tool we need to develop. The district needs to brainstorm on this idea. Howís this for a novel idea that uses the carrot. If you asked the typical government worker of 23 years why he isnít changing careers, likely heíll say, all I have to do is work another 5 years and I can start drawing retirement. What if the state set up a similar plan to keep students from quitting or dropping out of school before they are scheduled to retire from high school or graduate? For instance, when a student makes it through 9th grade, $1,000 would put in this retirement/ graduation account. If he gets through 10th grade another $1,000 would added, and so on. He doesnít become fully vested until he graduates, and at that point he is handed a diploma and a $4,000 check to do as he/ she pleases. Better yet, give half to the student and half to the parent(s). Motivate the parent(s) to get that student to the graduation finish line or his scheduled high school retirement. Redirect some lottery money to this effort.  
 
Howís this for another idea that uses the stick? When a student turns 15, he can only get a permit if he is on grade level and passing. When he turns 16, he can only get a drivers license if he is at grade level and passing. A person is an adult when the US government can draft him or her. Thatís 18. Before then children live by the rules of adults.   
 
The notion we are going to pay teachers only for better performance is like only paying coaches in sports for better performance, but not the players on the field. Economically, it makes little sense. Suffice it to say, students arenít motivated as they need to be. Schools are applying the economic incentive approach; I just think it needs more heft.  
 
Prescription 3: Social and Psychological 
In my opinion, an at-risk studentís low reading skill is a symptom not the root cause. The cause is often the studentsí social environment at home (e.g., parent isnít around to read with him) and psychological issues. Treating a symptom (low reading skill) has merit, but we also need to get at the cause of the problem.  
 
First, we need to teach at-risk students the universal formula of success ó set a goal, put forth energy, and achieve the goal and its reward. The by-product of teaching them this is theyíll gain confidence, confidence to keep setting goals in education/ life and putting out energy to reach goal after goal.  Sports, the arts and broader access to the Career Center can be used to grab their attention/ interest and allow us to teach them this universal formula of success.   
 
Often times students want to be this or that when they grow up. Honestly, they don't see how the Math and English they are learning now will relate to that job they want as an adult. If we can tie the carrot of that job they want to the math and english we are teaching them in school today, their motivation level will rise. The Career Center will help us do that. Start a middle school program at the Center Center.  
 
Severely at-risk students need behavioral modification so theyíll respect their teachers/ authority, keep their hands to themselves and do what is required for that student to be ready, willing and able to accept an educational lesson. Often times an intensely structured system of rewards and discipline will do the trick.  
 
Some need therapy to help them sort out all their problems at home, so theyíll be ready to accept an educational lesson. Honestly, every at-risk student with problems at home needs to be in therapy getting to the root cause of why he doesnít behave or why he doesnít value education. There heíll be helped and taught strategies to move beyond those psychological issues that are holding him back in all areas of life, not just education.    
 
In many cases weíll need to intervene with the family. Having parent Tuesday night where the parents meet in a group with the principal to discuss issues about their childís education is something the Rebound program did effectively. Hooking-up parents with the Pickens County Literacy Society to teach them how to read makes sense too.  
 
The at-risk students with the most severe social and psychological issues need to be at the Simpson School where all these solutions are and should be applied more intensely.  
 
 
 
The Financial Challenge: 
In this economic environment, every new initiative or challenge like this one of trying to improve the graduation rate is glued to another ó the financial challenge. That is, to implement these solutions with a lack of additional money or within existing budgets.  
 
Many new expenditures are competing for limited new money. For instance, the district has added 400,000 sqf of new space. We have added zero custodians. The next two years another 300,000 sqf will be added.  The district has bought 6,500 laptops. It cost $1.3 million to refresh a 1/3 of them every year. The district added a second middle school in Easley. It will require an additional principal, nurse, etc. That will cost about $700,000 a year.  
 
That means better financial management or use of existing resources is required, if we are going to implements some of the ideas I described above to address the graduation rate.   
 
Conclusion: 
To solve the graduation problem we must do three things:  
 
1) Provide an academic prescription. This includes improving our principals and teachers so they are better able to give top notch lessons to the students who are willing and able to receive that lesson.  
 
2) Provide an economic prescription directed toward all students so they will have more incentive to learn and try their best.   
 
3) For the students who have social issues at home and psychological issues in their head we need to target their social/ psychological problem that are holding them back from taking-to and absorbing an academic lesson.  
 
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