Public Education Is Not Broken – The Accountability Measures Are

Practice Makes Perfect's founder and CEO Karim Abouelnaga takes public education very seriously. This is seen to the public through his tireless dedication to PMP, but something a little less public is his personal connection to public education, most specifically NYC public schools. Karim and three of his siblings all made their way through some of NYC's most struggling public schools, while four of them are still in attendance. Having seen what it is like to attend these struggling schools, accompanied by the knowledge that his siblings are still suffering through them fuels him with an immense amount of passion toward fixing the issues that face these struggling schools. The problem is no one is acknowledging the real issue that public education faces: broken accountability measures. Recently, NYC announced that graduation rates are at an all time high of 70 percent. This provides the illusion that NYC's public schools are increasing in quality. If graduation rates are up, that must imply that students are getting grades that deserve the promotion, right? Unfortunately, that is not the case. While the city is applauding the great climb in graduation rates, Karim is more concerned facing what is really causing the public education system harm. Continue reading to find out more about Karim's thoughts on public education.

Public Education Is Not Broken – The Accountability Measures Are

Our public education system isn’t broken. It works. That may be one of the most antithetical views on public education of our time. I’ve read countless articles, books, and blogs on how “broken” the system is. I’m friends with some of the authors, too. Now, don’t get me wrong, just because I’m saying it works, doesn’t mean there aren’t some serious concerns that need to be addressed.

One of those concerns is how we use graduation rates to measure success. Having attended and continuing to work with some of New York City’s most struggling schools has shown me that if you just meet the bar, you’re set up for failure. On average, our system under performs (in NYC the average high school graduation rate is 70% and the average college readiness rate is 20%). We’ve built a public education system in our lowest income communities where if kids don’t go above and beyond their requirements, they are set up to fall short of achieving their fullest potential.

Last month, the United States Department of Education publicized that high school graduation rates hit new records. I’ve attended and worked with schools where graduation was the school’s way of getting rid of you. It meant nothing. I have friends who graduated from high school who can’t read a short article in The New York Times without fumbling, who can’t write a professional email without several typos, and who can’t structure a coherent paragraph. For the record, I’m not talking about one or two friends. I’m talking about dozens of the kids I grew up with. They all graduated from high school. Their schools were deemed “successful” for having graduated them. But we all know the truth. And by using high school graduation rates as our proxy for success, we will only continue to disguise the truth.

A study of NYC’s public school graduates in 2013 showed that nearly 80% of city public high school graduates that attended community colleges required remediation for English or math. Even more recently, a high school in Greenville, South Carolina touted an 80% graduation rate, but last year’s college entrance exams showed only one in 10 students were ready for college-level work in reading, and about one in 14 were ready for entry-level college math (that’s a 7% college-readiness rate!).

The reason why this is possible is, in large part, because of our system of how our success and accountability measures are structured. A high school is deemed successful if a high percentage of its students graduate. Though not as obvious, it is the same benchmark for elementary and middle schools. By virtue of being able to manipulate the standards for graduation that number can easily be inflated. However, blaming high schools for poor education and low college readiness rates would be misaligned. The process of becoming college and career ready is a 14+ year process (from PK-12). As a result, it is increasingly difficult to hold a standalone high school, or even a standalone middle school for that matter, accountable for low college readiness rates.

Though the challenge is complex, there are two viable solutions:

Create or re-create more PK-12 schools. It is unreasonable and unrealistic to hold a school leader accountable for college readiness if they only have that child in their school for only a third of their academic career. If they have them for their entire academic career, however, that isn’t an unreasonable expectation. In fact, it becomes that much easier to hold leadership accountable for a child’s progress because, outside of external factors (that every school leader deals with), they have had that child for the entirety of their schooling. Of course, this is much easier said than done. School buildings would have to be refitted to accommodate both high school and elementary school students. Physical spaces like cafeterias, auditoriums, and gymnasiums would have to be redesigned. Impossible? Absolutely not. In fact, many high performing private schools are structured this way.

Increase support for students behind grade as soon as they are identified as behind grade-level. Too many of our children are pushed through the system. We know they are struggling and that they are not on grade level, but we don’t get them the additional support that they need until years after. Literally! In many cases we’d rather hire probation officers and invest in societal re-entry programs than provide children with additional tutors, after-school or even summer programs. This is resource intensive and there are very few evidenced-based solutions.

One other suggested solution is to end social promotion. Social promotion is the notion of just passing a kid because they are of a certain age or because they completed grade level, regardless of their proficiency. This has been tried and ended in the past because it doesn’t work well. Research shows that having a kid repeat a year between kindergarten and fifth grade makes them 60 percent less likely to graduate high school than kids with similar backgrounds, and even 60 percent less likely to graduate high school than siblings in the same family. It is also common knowledge that high school dropouts tend to engage in riskier behaviors more often than those who have completed high school. So we’d prefer to have an 18-year-old with a 4th grade reading level than an 18-year-old high school dropout.

By transitioning to an education model that creates reasonable accountability measures, we have the opportunity to shift the focus from high school graduation rates to college and career readiness rates, which is really all that matters. I want future generations of low-income children to read The New York Times cover to cover and to be able to write coherent paragraphs that become the basis of short stories that their children and their children’s children will read for centuries to come.