Friday, November 23, 2001

“There are three kinds of lies,” Mark Twain once observed: “lies, damn lies and statistics.” One of the biggest lies the educational establishment has been peddling in recent years has been the seemingly extraordinary progress the nation’s public school systems have been making in increasing the high school graduation rate. Based on census data and other information mostly provided by the school systems themselves, particular advances have ostensibly been made among minorities. Since 1980, for example, the percentage of persons 25 years old and over who have “completed 4 years of high school or more,” according to the U.S. Census Bureau, has increased from 66 percent to nearly 84 percent. Among blacks, that percentage has increased from about 50 percent to 77 percent over the same period.

Before uncorking the champagne bottles, however, parents especially minority parents and other interested parties ought to take a look at the recent study the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research prepared for the Black Alliance for Education Options. Essentially, the Manhattan Institute has blown the whistle on the public educational establishment, which, it’s worth recalling, former Secretary of Education William Bennett appropriately labeled “the blob.”

To cut through the fog of self-serving graduation statistics provided by “the blob’s” bureaucrats, Jay P. Greene, an education-policy researcher at the Manhattan Institute, asked a simple question: What percentage of students who graduated from the eighth grade in the 1993-94 school year eventually graduated from high school in the 1997-98 academic year? After making minor demographic adjustments to account for interim migration and other factors, Mr. Greene found that, among the 3.33 million students who graduated from the eighth grade in the United States in 1994, only 2.45 million had received their high school diplomas by 1998. That produced an abysmal four-year high school graduation rate of 74 percent. In other words, more than 25 percent of all 1994 graduating eighth graders had failed to graduate from high school by 1998. Among minorities, the results were far worse. The study found that only 56 percent of black students and 54 percent of Hispanic students had graduated from high school by 1998. (The comparable rate for white students was 78 percent, itself a disgrace.) Sixteen of the 50 largest school districts failed to graduate 50 percent of black students, while 35 of the same 50 districts failed to graduate half their Hispanic students.

Particularly interesting was the fact that the City of Chicago School District, which “the blob” has been touting as a great success in the public school “reform” movement, graduated only 47 percent of its students. As recent events have confirmed, moreover, even the formality of dispensing diplomas provides little evidence of real accomplishment. The Philadelphia School District, which somehow achieved a 70 percent graduation rate, including 65 percent of its black students, has become so objectively and obviously dysfunctional that it is in danger of a state takeover.

“The blob” in the form of National Education Association policy analyst Michael Pons attacked Mr. Greene’s study as “flawed,” in part because he did not consider those students who eventually attained their General Educational Development (GED) credential. But as Mr. Greene noted in his study, not only is the GED “simply not equivalent to a regular high school diploma,” it is also true that “future prospects for recipients of GEDs are significantly worse than the future prospects for the recipients of regular high school diplomas.”

The year 1998 marked the 15th anniversary of the landmark 1983 report, “A Nation at Risk,” in which a federally commissioned blue-ribbon panel warned of the “rising tide of mediocrity” in the nation’s public schools. The Manhattan Institute’s study confirms how little progress has been made since then, especially for minority students who are disproportionately forced to attend dysfunctional urban public school systems.

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