Hiding High School Graduation Standards?

In case you missed it (and you likely did, based on timing), the U.S. Department of Education finally released its non-regulatory guidance regarding a uniform national high school graduation rate.  Readers may recall that EdSec Spellings announced the federal government’s intent to adopt the four-year graduation rate established years ago by the National Governors Association, agreed to by all 50 states soon after, and adopted by many states already.  Well, on Christmas Eve’s Eve, ED decided to offer some of the specifics around the new grad rate.

The highlights, according to ED itself:
* Defines the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate, the extended-year adjusted cohort graduation rate, and the transitional graduation rates that are allowable until States must implement the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate
* Guides States in setting a single graduation rate goal and annual graduation rate targets
* Outlines requirements for reporting graduation rates
* Answers questions about how States include the four-year adjusted cohort graduation rate and any extended-year adjusted cohort graduation rate in AYP determinations, including the use of disaggregated rates for student subgroups
* Explains how a State must revise its Consolidated State Application Accountability Workbook to include certain information and submit its revisions to the Department for technical assistance and peer review
* Clarifies the timeline for implementing the new graduation rate provisions, as well as the process for how a State that cannot meet the deadlines outlined in the final regulations may request, from the Secretary, an extension of time to meet the requirements.
Thanks to the FritzWire for drawing attention to the announcement.  The full non-regs can be found at: www.ed.gov/policy/elsec/guid/hsgrguidance.pdf
Don’t get Eduflack wrong.  I’m thrilled ED has gone and endorsed the NGA formula.  They should have done so years ago.  I also recognize that ED is using an awful lot of words and “non-regulatory” language to describe what should be a simple concept.  At the end of the day, the federal government is saying a high school graduation rate is measured based on how many ninth graders complete their secondary school education four years later.  Obvious exceptions are made for transfers and deaths and such, but high school is a four-year experience, and the measurement is a four-year yardstick.
No, what troubles me is the timing.  At no time in our nation’s history is a secondary (and some form of postsecondary) education as important and necessary as it is today.  Under virtually no circumstances should we say it is acceptable for any student to drop out of high school.  Dropping out simply is not a viable option.  This new formula is a big deal, with major implications for the states and for the nation.  We need an accurate count of how many kids are graduating high school on time (and then we need to determine why the rest are not).  So why dump it during a holiday week when no one is paying attention?
Years ago, Eduflack was doing crisis communications work for a manufacturing company.  We had a big story coming out, a story we didn’t want to see in print.  We couldn’t control the story, but we did have some control over the timing.  Through some creative issue management, the article ran in a major daily newspaper the Sunday following Thanksgiving.  Few read the story.  The issue was forgotten before the post-holiday work week had ramped up.  It died a quick death in the natural news cycle.  The lesson here — there are good times to release important news, and good times to bury news of concern.  Thirty-six hours before Christmas simply isn’t the time to garner the attention of the populace, or even just the education policy chattering class.
And that’s a cryin’ shame.  The move to establish a common high school graduation rate is an important step forward in the discussion of national standards and student equity.  It puts all high school schools on a level playing field, letting parents, policymakers, and decisionmakers truly see what schools are doing their jobs, where the true dropout factories are, and who is hiding behind a mound of disaggregated data.
I’ve been hard on the EdSec for sitting out much of 2008, shying away from the controversial issues and losing grasp of what could have been a positive legacy of education improvement for this Administration.  Her announcement earlier this year to embrace a universal high school graduation rate was a moment of strength and of power.  Unfortunately, the potential has again been squandered, lost amid a pile of Christmas wrappings and end-of-the-year lists of who’s hot and who’s not.  If this guidance couldn’t be released in early December, it should have been held for the new year.  It should have been released when education reporters were in the office, ed bloggers were updating their postings, and policy websites were getting their usual traffic.
A Christmas Eve’s Eve dump does a disservice to those states who have already adopted the universal grad rate, and paid the price because it dropped their numbers virtually overnight.  It does a disservice to those who have been fighting for high school improvement and for national performance standards.  And it does a disservice to ED and the EdSec, who again score well on intent but struggle with the execution.
Is it too much to ask for ED to maximize the bully pulpit it possesses?  Is it too much to think major policy issues and efforts to improve our schools deserve the spotlight, and not simply a midnight release as the last person turns out the lights over at Maryland Avenue?        

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