Are Florida’s Rising Graduation Rates the Result of Accountabaloney?

“A society in which decisions are based solely on numbers instead of sound judgment is one in which no one is truly accountable.” – Joe Ganem

Campbell’s Law (a social science adage first written about in 1976) says “the more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor”. Campbell’s Law predicts the distortion and corruption to the education system when stakes (like school grades, prizes and other accolades) are attached to easy-to-measure metrics, like standardized test scores or high school graduation rates.

Currently, at least ten percent of Florida’s High School and District Grade calculations are dependent on graduation rates. Commissioner of Education, Pam Stewart has used Florida’s rising graduation rates as evidence of the success of the current accountability system, saying “This news is further evidence that Florida’s public education system is serving our students well. More students are achieving success by earning a diploma, which will enable them to pursue higher education and meaningful careers.” While no one questions the importance of earning a high school diploma, Campbell’s Law warns that the more the system celebrates and rewards graduation rates, the more apt those rates are to be corrupted by the system meant to monitor them. In other words, graduation rates will become prone to accountabaloney.

We first became aware of the accountabaloney associated with graduation rates a year ago, when investigators uncovered evidence that some Pinellas County students were being given grades, through their district’s credit recovery program GradPoint (a product of Pearson Education), that they didn’t earn. As reported by the I-Team: “Graduation rates play a big role in school ratings. Now there is some concern that the pressure to get those rates up is prompting some schools to cut corners on kids’ education.

This week, ProPublica published, in USA Today, “Hidden dropouts: How schools make low achievers disappear,” documenting how Orange County Public Schools utilized charter alternative schools, run by a for-profit company, to bolster their graduation rates, earning the district top honors, including national recognition (winning the 2014 Broad Prize for Urban Education where they were praised “not only for raising students’ achievement across grade levels, but for doing so at a rapid pace.”) Additionally, in November 2016, Superintendent Barbara Jenkins was named Florida’s Superintendent of the Year.

We encourage you to read this important article which outlines how the success of highly rated Olympia High School (boasting a graduation rate of above 90% and seven straight years of an A school grade) is closely linked to nearby Sunshine High, a charter alternative school run by a for-profit company. We feel it is impossible to read this expose without smelling the accountabaloney.

“Sunshine takes in cast-offs from Olympia and other Orlando high schools in a mutually beneficial arrangement. Olympia keeps its graduation rate above 90 percent — and its rating an “A” under Florida’s all-important grading system for schools — partly by shipping its worst achievers to Sunshine. Sunshine collects enough school district money to cover costs and pay its management firm, Accelerated Learning Solutions (ALS), a more than $1.5 million-a-year “management fee,” 2015 financial records show – more than what the school spends on instruction.

But students lose out, a ProPublica investigation found. Once enrolled at Sunshine, hundreds of them exit quickly with no degree and limited prospects. The departures expose a practice in which officials in the nation’s tenth largest school district have for years quietly funneled thousands of disadvantaged students – some say against their wishes – into alternative charter schools that allow them to disappear without counting as dropouts.”

Orlando schools are not unique in using alternative schools to keep struggling students from negatively impacting accountability measures. ProPublica documents similar issues in California, Louisiana and Pennsylvania.

“The Orlando schools illustrate a national pattern. Alternative schools have long served as placements for students who violated disciplinary codes. But since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 refashioned the yardstick for judging schools, alternative education has taken on another role: A silent release valve for high schools like Olympia that are straining under the pressure of accountability reform.

As a result, alternative schools at times become warehouses where regular schools stow poor performers to avoid being held accountable. Traditional high schools in many states are free to use alternative programs to rid themselves of weak students whose test scores, truancy and risk of dropping out threaten their standing, a ProPublica survey of state policies found.

Orlando is one of 83 school districts, from Newark to Los Angeles, where regular schools increased their graduation rates by at least one percentage point from 2010 to 2014 while sending more students into alternative education, ProPublica’s analysis found. Such a pattern could indicate that traditional schools are weeding out students at greater risk of dropping out, although there are many reasons why graduation rates rise.”

Such for-profit charter schools often have little financial oversight and are described as “little profit centers”:

“Companies running schools in this niche often save costs by relying on computer programs that reduce the need for credentialed teachers. The market can be lucrative: As enrollment grew, ALS’ management fees from the schools it operates in Orange County more than doubled from $2.5 million in the 2012 school year to $5.4 million in 2015. The company says the fees pay for back-office services, such as human resources, as well as school-based support for areas such as curriculum, reading, math, security, and professional development.”

Accelerated Learning Solutions appears to have re-invested some of its profits into Florida politics (including donating to OCPS Board Members Pam Gould and Christine Moore’s re-election campaigns):

“ALS has waded into state political contests, with the company and its executives contributing at least $45,000 to Florida politicians and political action committees since 2015 – including sizeable contributions to the Republican Party of Florida and a political action committee called Citizens First that has taken in tens of thousands in donations from charter organizations. ALS officials have donated to local school board races, too.

And state records show that since last year, ALS has paid between $70,000 and $190,000 to lobbyists. On the company’s legislative agenda: convincing state policymakers to lower the accountability bar further for alternative education, citing students’ challenging backgrounds. The company urged state officials, for instance, not to count last school year’s performance against alternative schools, because the state made the rating more rigorous.”

No one should be surprised that Orange County went to extraordinary lengths to raise the appearance of their district’s graduation rates. As the ProPublica piece pointed out, school board officials and the district had made “a deliberate, multi-year push for the Broad (prize)– a journey some districts have called the “Road to Broad.” When they won, they were celebrated for demonstrating “that a sense of urgency and focus can improve student achievement in a hurry.”

The question remains as to whether true academic achievement gains occurred or whether Orange County merely recognized the rules of the School Grade Accountability “game” and sought win the most points possible. By winning the game, they were rewarded financially, gaining national recognition and personal accolades (in the form of Superintendent of the Year). Although Orange County is called out in this report, we suspect similar gamesmanship, to varying degrees are occurring in districts across the state.

No Child Left Behind, and other education “reforms”supported by Superintendent Jenkins and the OCPS Board, were supposed improve educational outcomes for struggling students who had been “left behind” by the education system. Students who need an alternative education system still have a constitutional right to an appropriate public school education and should not be relegated to a second rate, for-profit system designed to game the system.

Campbell’s Law predicted that if the system celebrated and rewarded graduation rates, those rates were bound to be corrupted by the system meant to monitor them. By attaching high stakes and financial rewards to graduation rates, accountabaloney ensued. We should be ashamed but not surprised.


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