Why It’s Hard to Raise the Bar

It’s not unusual for educational reforms to be exercises in bar-raising.  Most are — that’s why we do them. We don’t always say we’re “raising the bar”; we might say we’re improving instruction, setting better goals, designing better curriculum. But it’s the same idea: we’re improving.

Proficiency based learning (PBL), the new grading system in Vermont, is no exception. We put it in place to ensure students are graduating from high school prepared.  We are, whether we’re saying it or not, trying to raise the bar.

But too often the danger of reform is that if you’re not crystal-clear about what specifically needs to happen, the bar ends up right back smack in the same place it was before.  I’d been thinking to myself about why this might happen with PBL. The other day I had a revelation: the important forces we need to counter are both cultural and statistical. As things are now, the bar needs to be set in a place where we can 1) preserve our high school graduation rate and 2) preserve our cultural ideal of high school as only four years long. Those two forces may conspire to keep the bar right in the same place it has been all along — only now the bar’s height may come with added dangers.

Let’s look at why.

Start with graduation rate.  Think about it: The four-year high school graduation rate is one of our most important educational measurements.  Unlike most of our statistics, this one’s actually pretty good (see this national report, from just a few days ago).  For a profession in which most of the numbers always seem to point back at glaring inequality (if not outright failure), the high school graduation rate is a rare statistical bright spot.

And it’s a source of pride here in Vermont too, where we have one of the best in the nation — just under 90%.  Even our governor acknowledges, “We have a good graduation rate.” It’s an important metric, a source of pride, and — most importantly — a quantifiable one.  

While there are two common ways to calculate high school graduation rate, from what I can tell, both only measure four-year timeframes.  I am not a stats geek, but from what I can see, graduate in longer than four years and you might as well not have graduated.  That makes sense. Right now anyone taking longer than five years is not really considered to be in high school any longer.

So what I am saying is that the danger with PBL is that Campbell’s Law is in play here.  Campbell’s Law basically says, anytime a statistical measurement is taken too seriously, participants will game the system to keep the numbers looking good.  What I mean is — we are not voluntarily lowering our four-year graduation rate anytime soon. If anything, educational leaders are under tremendous pressure to raise it (particularly for poor or minority students).  It’s an important stat, and usually a good stat, so we’re not about to ruin that.

The problem is, PBL might.  PBL says, “Time is a variable.” Some kids take longer, and that’s okay.  The important thing isn’t rushing through high school, it’s actually learning something.  The old system said: “When we finish the unit, if they don’t get it, give students a D and move on.” PBL says: “If they’re not proficient, they need more time.”

But where does that time come from?  We don’t have the political will to increase the length of the school day or the school year.  That leaves only one place that extra time can truly come from. If we want to do PBL with fidelity, we must get comfortable with students staying in high school longer than four years.

But we won’t.  First of all, high school is four years long in the popular imagination.  It’s cultural. Parents see a fifth year of high school as a child’s failure.  

But more importantly, our own graduation metric measures only four-year graduates.  It encourages us to push them across the graduation stage before they’re ready. Under our own measurement, time most certainly is not a variable — it’s a hard and fast constant.  Take longer and you don’t count. In fact, you make us look bad.

That’s where the low bar comes in.  PBL demands a low bar. Or to be more precise — it makes the lowness of the bar (which has always been there) much plainer than the old system did.  

Let’s take a look at why.

The Lowness of the Bar

Work backwards: If we’re keeping the graduation rate the same, that means that all the same students must continue graduating.  Under the old system that meant attending school for four years and — through some murky amalgam of academic skill and habits of work — passing your classes.  Under PBL it means being “proficient” by the end of 12th grade.

Okay.  But that bar must be the same for all students.  You can say that some students will meet proficiency in different ways, but you cannot say that the bar for that proficiency is any different whether school is easy or hard for a child.

But if we’re still graduating all the same students, the proficiency bar must be set where our most struggling students can reach it — within four years.

Fine.  But won’t our most advanced students be able to reach that bar much earlier — perhaps in tenth or even ninth grade?  After all, isn’t the work some ninth graders are doing equivalent to the work other students do as seniors? Take English class.  Aren’t some kids writing better by the end of ninth grade than others by the end of twelfth? In other words, aren’t some kids four years ahead of others by the time they start high school?  

Of course they are.  We know this.

This is striking:  some of our students will satisfy their high school graduation requirements during the first half of high school.  Many will finish by tenth grade, others perhaps by the end of ninth.

But surely, you ask, there won’t be enough time for students to finish all of the portfolio artifacts they must do by the end of ninth grade?  They might be proficient, but surely it takes more time to prove it?

Yes, but we can’t require too much proof — otherwise our most struggling students will struggle to finish in four years.  It has to be the same bar — and it cannot be too high — otherwise we risk retaining fifth-year seniors.

The implications are staggering.  

For one thing, we’ll need to get good at convincing higher-level students to stay in school.  I know that sounds strange! But because graduation standards are attainable in such a shorter time, we’ll need to actively start selling these students on sticking around rather than graduating early.  Honestly, I’m not worried about our most advantaged students — they’ll keep taking our hardest classes and working their tails off because that’s what selective colleges want. And they’re usually the students who are the most invested in the life of the school — sports teams, student government, arts and extracurriculars.  And their families either have money for college or an understanding of how to work the system for scholarships.

I’m more concerned about the group of students on the next rung down on the socio-economic ladder.  Their families have less money, less agency and experience with college financing; to them the prospect of a free year of higher ed through an early college program is harder to pass up.  They’re already leaving Vermont high schools early, every year in greater numbers. Once PBL starts to kick in and these students start to realize they can finish graduation proficiencies earlier and earlier, I believe we’ll start to see a mass exodus.  They’re done with high school, and they can do a free year of college if they leave. Why would they stick around?

This has consequences.  Specifically, I worry that we’re hollowing out our schools of the middle group.  It’s hard to have both flexible pathways and community. In some ways, that’s always going to be a problem because of tracked classes.  But at least seat time requirements mostly kept students all in the same building for four years. Now with more students able to finish high school early, and with more pathways open if they do, I worry that we’re creating a system in which only the rich and the poor stick around for four years — on increasingly separate tracks, with fewer students in the middle to soften the disparities.

I also worry that, as schools start to make choices about where the PBL bar should go — how many standards to meet, how many times, in what proficiencies? — schools will set radically different bars.  Won’t schools be inclined to — because of cultural pressures and graduation rate pressure — set the bar where the most students can attain it in four years? And won’t that look very different at a wealthy school compared to a poorer school?  If you have a wealthy and relatively homogenous population, won’t you set a higher bar?

This was always an issue, of course, but it was always much more hidden what the actual graduation standards really were.  PBL requires that those standards are made abundantly clear. Won’t it make it so clear, in fact, that we’ll plainly realize that the same student can graduate from one school but could not from another?  For example — won’t a student from Missisquoi complain that he must complete three proficient artifacts in nine English standards, while his friend at South Royalton needs to do only two in five standards?  How is that fair?

I suppose the hope is that, in clarifying such things, we can work to make them more fair, perhaps more even statewide.  But again — because the disparity across the whole state is wider than that within most single schools — doesn’t that just open us up to creating a bar that either keeps some students for even longer, or lets others leave even earlier?  Aren’t we back in the same place?

The counterargument of course is that PBL will actually raise the bar.  That it will be a higher bar than our current graduation requirement because it makes teachers teach better: they must be clearer about goals, more accurate in their assessments, more focused in their instruction.  Students will learn more, more quickly, and the bar can be higher — and we’ll still get everyone across the finish line in four years.

I like to think that’ll be true, but I’m skeptical — for a whole host of reasons that I’ve written about before.  I’ll let that be for now. Suffice to say, there’s no magical system. If PBL were so revelatory, it would have caught fire back when it was called Mastery Learning, or Outcome-Based Education, or Competency Education.  It didn’t.

My personal solution would be to do this:  First, broaden the graduation rate metric to ensure it includes students who take longer than four years.  Second, create an environment — both culturally and economically — in which it’s okay to take longer than four years in high school.  We’ll need funding to be able to keep educating these students beyond senior year. More importantly, we’ll need to stop saying you’re a failure if you take longer to finish than four years.  

In a way we’ve already done that with college. There is not the same stigma about getting done in four years. More importantly, there is not the same stigma about starting college immediately after high school. We’re starting to understand the wisdom of giving students some time, space, and life experience before they go plunging back into (costly) school. They need time off: the Gap Year. It’s great, and it’s catching on. I’d love to see the fifth year of high school become something similar.  Just like some kids aren’t ready to start college at 18, some aren’t ready to start the next phase either — whatever that may be.

It can take time — and we should make that okay.