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Ideological Barriers to High School Graduation for Some

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Thanks to the efforts  of the US Department of Education, high school graduation rates can be compared across state lines for the first time. The results of the 2010-11 Four-Year Regulatory Adjusted Cohort Graduation Rates report is revealing and a bit disturbing. The top high school graduation rate was in Iowa where 88% of all students graduated. The lowest was in Nevada where just 61% graduated.  (What's happening there?) The median of state averages for graduation rates was just 80%. 

High School Graduation Speech - class of 2008!
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High School Graduation Speech - class of 2008! by YouTube

The nation's high school graduation rates are disappointing, but when you break down the numbers they become truly disturbing. In almost every state, White children had the highest graduation rates. In many states the graduation rates for African-American and Native-American students fell 10 to 20 points below those of White students. A similar gap can be seen between White students and those who are economically disadvantaged. The largest race-based gap was in Minnesota where 84% of White students graduate versus only 49% of Black students. That's a 35-percentage-point gap.  The other states with large race-based graduation gaps include Nevada (28 pts.), Wisconsin (27 pts.) and Ohio (26 pts.). These are not the states we tend to think of when we talk about the racial divide. 

But the biggest and most disturbing graduation gaps are not along racial, ethnic, or even economic lines.  They occur in two unexpected categories--children with disabilities and children for whom English is their second language.  

In Mississippi and Nevada only 23% of disabled students graduated from high school. These are children who, through no fault of their own, require every advantage they can get if they are to lead happy, productive lives. In Nevada the graduation gap between students with disabilities and White students was 48 percentage points. Mississippi did a much better job overall. White students graduated at a respectable rate of 82%. The graduation gap for Mississippi's disabled children, however, was 59 points lower. Contrast that with Arkansas, where there was only a 9-point gap, or with South Dakota, where there was just a 2-point difference between White students and disabled students. What is possible for disabled children in South Dakota should be possible in every state. Over all, the graduation gap between abled and disabled students is greater than ethnic, racial, or economic factors. The biggest gaps were mostly in the South, but almost every state needs to do a better job.

The second disturbing category is the graduation gaps for immigrant children whose first language is not English. While states such as West Virginia, Maine, South Dakota, and Arkansas were able to graduate English-language learners on par with White students, most other states were less successful.  The graduation gaps in Georgia (44 pts.), Nevada, Alabama (both 42 pts.), and New York (40 pts.) were among the biggest.  But it is Arizona, by far, that had the largest gap in the graduation rates between White students (85%) and those who needed to learn English (23%).  This was a 60-percentage-point drop in graduation rates for English-language learners in Arizona, and the reason for this poor performance has a lot to do with ideological politics. Voters in Arizona eliminated bilingual education in a 2000 ballot measure. Proposition 203 was a popular backlash against bilingual education in favor of a more nationalistic "English for the Children Philosophy". Bilingual education was viewed as a politically correct relic of our liberal past. 

It is unconscionable to hold children in the cross-fire of America's ideological wars. Children are a special class of citizens who rightfully have special protections and certain undeniable rights, including the right to equal educational opportunities. To set different standards based on race, religion, disabilities, or place of origin is unacceptable. To eliminate educational opportunities or to choose educational programs based on politics over empirical practice is malfeasance. It harms children and ultimately harms our society.  There is no excuse for not duplicating the success many other states already have in educating children of color, children with disabilities, and children who speak another language. State sovereignty be damned.  Children everywhere are every citizen's concern.  We must do all we can to remove politics from public schooling and press the case for competent practices that gives every child a fair shot at success. High School Graduation for every child should be our national goal.


(Below are excerpts from an article detailing the struggle to improve educational outcome for English-language-learning students in Arizona.)

Bilingual Education vs. English Immersion


... Spanish-speaking [families in] Nogales [Arizona]... in 1992 [filed] a federal suit aimed at improving educational opportunities for non-English-speaking students in the overwhelmingly Hispanic town. The class-action suit claimed the school district was failing to comply with a federal law -- the Equal Educational Opportunities Act of 1974 -- which requires each state to take "appropriate action" to ensure that English-language learners (ELLs) enjoy "equal participation in its instructional programs."

... The plaintiffs won a pivotal decision in 2001 requiring Arizona to boost funding for English-language learning in Nogales and the rest of the state. In a narrowly divided decision in June, however, the Supreme Court gave state officials an opportunity to set aside the lower court ruling.

Writing for the 5-4 majority, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said the federal district judge had failed to adequately consider changed circumstances since 2001. Among other changes, Alito cited the state's decision to drop bilingual education in favor of so-called "sheltered English immersion" as the officially prescribed method of instruction for students with limited English proficiency.

Arizona's voters had decisively rejected bilingual education in a 2000 ballot measure. Along with similar measures passed in California in 1998 and Massachusetts in 2002, Arizona's Proposition 203 embodied a popular backlash against bilingual education that had grown since the 1980s. Critics of bilingual teaching viewed it as a politically correct relic of the 1960s and '70s that had proven academically ineffective and politically divisive. [snip]

... The debate between English-only instruction and bilingual education has been fierce for decades. "People get very hot under the collar," says Christine Rossell, a professor of political science at Boston University and critic of bilingual education. [snip]

... Those who support a bilingual approach, says Arizona Superintendent of Instruction Thomas Horne, "aren't interested in teaching the kids English," but want to maintain "a separatist nationalism that they can take advantage of." Horne, a Republican, intervened with the state's GOP legislative leaders to try to undo the federal court injunction. [snip]

... "It's a growing challenge," says Patte Barth, director of the Center for Public Education at the National School Boards Association (NSBA). "We have many more children coming into our schools for whom their first language is not English..."     Voluminous, statistics-heavy studies are cited by opposing advocacy groups as evidence to support their respective positions on the bilingual versus English-only debate. But Barth says language politics, not research, often determines school districts' choice of instructional method. "A lot of it is political," she says. "A lot of decisions about language instruction aren't really informed by the research about what works for children."

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Brian Lynch is a retired social worker who worked in the areas of adult mental health and child protection for many years. His work brought him into direct contact with all the major social issues of the day and many of our basic social (more...)

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