How should school officials improve
high school graduation rates?

The Virtual Editorials - E2 (May 15, 2005) - Dennis Foster

Introduction:  Falling graduation rates at Flagstaff public schools, or, at least, at Coconino (71%) served as the basis for this commentary.

Virtual Editorial #2

     The easy solution – just graduate more students.  Brilliant!  And, if you ask what it will take to accomplish this, the answer is simple – more money now, and more money later.  It’s not rocket science, although for twenty thousand dollars, I will be happy to write up a fifty page report, replete with charts and graphs, that says the same thing.  For an additional hundred thousand dollars, I’ll design a cool logo that will motivate students to stay in school and graduate.  If, in five years there hasn’t been any improvement, I will blame it on the absence, or presence, of big box shopping.  [I can go either way here.]

     Clearly, we don’t really care about education.  Otherwise, we wouldn’t leave it in the hands of the government to provide.  The really important things in life – food, clothing and shelter – are provided for by markets.  If we truly want a compulsory educational system that is overly centralized, with bloated administrative budgets, excessive attention on non-academic issues, and only very weak incentives to actually educate students, then we’re there!

     Someday, the system may implode and real change can occur – employing such radical concepts as parental choice, individual student responsibility and school fiscal accountability.

Afterword:  There are so many issues and problems here, it was quite difficult to keep to our 200 word limit.  I thought that the question ignored the entire issue of what it is that we were measuring, and what it is that we want to measure.  Hence, the solution that you just graduate more students.
     Here is a great example of the problem of a virtual government monopoly.  We all know what we want - educated students.  But, that is not so easily measured.  In fact, it can't be measured.  But, we must measure something, so we pick graduation rates.  They become a proxy for educated students - if you graduate, you must be educated.  I teach at the university.  I see students that have graduated from high school.  They are not educated.  In fact, many can hardly read and write.  And, don't even start talking about math.
     So, why do we have this measurement problem?  Because of the government monopoly.  Well, there are charter schools, but they just strengthen my case here.  In a competitive market, consumers, by and large, get what they want from producers.  Otherwise, producers will go out of business.  So, if parents want educated children, they can shop around and pick the school that they believe does that.  There will likely be a host of criteria that the parents will look at - graduation rates, SAT scores, admission to college, admissions to "tier 1" colleges, credentials of the faculty, and on and on.
     Those schools that find the right mix of inputs and generate satisfied parents, will be successful and will be copied.  And, we will all be better off as a result.  But, when the government provides the education, there is no incentive to succeed.  No faculty member, staff member, or administrator can profit from success.  And, success takes hard work, so there isn't much of an incentive to work hard.
     Two off-the-wall items for consideration:
1) Is it true that the people that hate the Wal-Mart Supercenter are the same as the people that love the highly centralized big-box school system?  That is one huge systemic problem, although the thought of government-provided decentralized schooling makes my wallet shutter.
2) Since Social Security is going to fail in another generation, maybe it is time to revert to the good old days, and have children start working at, say, age 14.  That way, we can eliminate high school, or at least keep them more selective.

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