Why DC’s Low Graduation Rates?

[Some changes to the conclusions in this post; see edit at the end and entry 21 on Mistakes page]

US News: DC Schools Brace For Catastrophic Drop In Graduation Rates. “Catastrophic” isn’t hyperbole; the numbers are expected to drop from 73% (close to the national average of 83%) all the way down to 42%.

There’s no debate about why this is happening – it’s because the previous graduation rate was basically fraudulent, inflated by pressure to show that recent “reforms” were working. Last year there was a big investigation, all the investigators agreed it was fraudulent, DC agreed to do a little less fraud this year, and this is the result. It’s pretty damning, given how everybody was praising the reforms and holding them up as a national model and saying this proved that Tough But Fair Education Policy could make a difference:

As far as scandals in the education policy world go, D.C. schools so profoundly miscalculating graduation rates at a time when the high-profile school district had been so self-laudatory about its achievements may be difficult to top […] Indeed, when Michelle Rhee took the reins of the flailing school system a decade ago, it galvanized the education reform movement, which had just begun blossoming around the country, and ushered in a host of controversial changes that included the shuttering of multiple schools, firing of hundreds of teachers and the institution of new teacher evaluation and compensation models.

The changes not only dramatically altered the local political landscape in Washington but also shined a national spotlight on D.C. schools that prompted other urban school districts and education policy researchers to consider the nation’s capital a bellwether for the entire education reform movement.

Well, darn.

But the interesting bit isn’t just that DC schools are doing worse than we thought. It’s that DC schools are doing amazingly, uniquely, abysmally bad, below what should even be possible. We make fun of states like Mississippi and Alabama, but both have graduation rates around 80%. The lowest graduation rate in any of the fifty states is in Oregon, which still has 69%. And we are being told DC is 42%!

When we discussed this in the last links thread, people had a couple of explanations:

1. Washington DC has a terrible school system, with uniquely incompetent administrators.

2. Washington DC is poorer, blacker, and more segregated than any other state, and that leads to unique challenges other school systems don’t face. Even though everyone is doing their best, they face insurmountable structural difficulties.

3. Maybe the fraud was so bad that DC over-corrected, and now has stricter standards than anywhere else.

Which of these is most important?

Let’s start by looking at test scores. Here’s a sample of DC’s NAEP scores compared to some other states (full list is here).

In both reading and math, in all grades, DC does abysmally. But they don’t do as abysmally as a 42% graduation rate might predict. They are sometimes last, sometimes second- or third- to last, and in any case they’re rarely that different from other low-performers like Alabama and Mississippi. They might be best described as a member in good standing of the lowest-performing tier of US states.

But there are massive racial inequalities in education, and DC is by far the blackest “state” in the nation. How does it do when we adjust for this?

The full table is here. DC has by far the highest white test scores in the country – probably because a lot of its white students are the kids of well-off bureaucrats and think-tank types. And its black test scores range from lowest-tier-member to mediocre.

Nor can this just be a Simpson’s Paradox, where both white and black students do fine but the difference is driven by a greater number of black students. The US average black graduation rate is 68%. No state has a black graduation rate lower than 56%. DC – again – is supposed to have a 42% total graduation rate.

This seems to refute hypotheses 1 and 2 – that DC just has a terrible school system, or just has an unusually disadvantaged population. Its white students do very well. Its black students do poorly but not too much worse than they would in other states. There is no gap – among either race or among both combined – that corresponds to the gap between Mississippi’s graduation rate (total 80%, black-only 77%), and DC’s graduation rate of 42%.

This leaves us with hypothesis 3 – that DC got burned so badly in the fraud investigations that its standards are now much higher than anywhere else’s. Maybe a graph will help:

The horizontal axis is each state’s test scores – specifically the average of its 8th grade NAEP reading and math. The vertical axis is its graduation rate. The previous, supposedly fraudulent DC rate clusters together more or less with everybody else. The new, supposedly non-fraudulent rate is an extreme outlier, showing a graduation rate about 20 percentage points lower than test scores would predict.

So DC’s old graduation rate was normal relative to their test scores, and their new graduation rate is an outlier. But their old graduation rate is widely considered to have been maintained by fraud and really low standards, and their new graduation rate is widely considered correct. Does that mean that everywhere else with the same levels of poverty and segregation as DC also uses fraud and really low standards to keep their graduation rates up?

Maybe. Detroit is often used as a symbol of inner-city educational dysfunction, but even the district with the worst Detroit schools has a 61.5% graduation rate. How do they do it? Given that fewer than 5% of their students pass exams, I assume they do it through fraud and really low standards. Los Angeles? Fraud and really low standards. Chicago? Fraud and really low standards. Baltimore? Given stories like the one where one of the city’s highest-graduation-rate schools has zero percent of students score at “meets expectations” or even “approaches expectations” on statewide exams, it looks like fraud and really low standards.

I understand this is a really strong claim. But others seem to agree, and it’s the only way I can make sense of DC’s abysmally low projected graduation rates, in the context of their merely-awful exam scores.

Or maybe the key word is “projected”. From the US News article:

The report estimated that just 42 percent of seniors are on track to graduate at the end of the current school year, down from 73 percent who graduated in the 2016-17 school year. It noted that 19 percent of students were “moderately off-track” and could still earn enough credits to graduate.

Plausibly, kindly school officials will find loopholes that allow all of those 19% of moderately-off-track children to graduate, DC’s actual graduation rate will be 62% (right on the trend line for the graph above), and this whole episode will be remembered as “that one time a scary report underestimating the graduation rate came out”. Plausibly, this is the main way that Detroit and Los Angeles and all those other cities keep their rates up, and the more dramatic scare stories are just that.

I hope this happens. Think how unfair it will be for DC students if it doesn’t. Somebody who would graduate comfortably from any other high school in the country will be held back because they happen to have been in DC the year it decided to enforce standards nobody else enforced. If the true value of education is signaling, then the most important thing a school district can do is make sure it’s speaking the same signaling-language as everyone else. Probably somebody should fix the system in general, but that needs to happen on a national level if it’s not going to leave thousands of unfairly-failed children as collateral damage.

[EDIT: More discussion at Highlights From The Comments On DC Graduation Rates. Main update is that I underestimated the importance of absences, which are what’s causing a lot of the non-graduations, which there might be more of in DC, and which DC might be stricter about than other areas.]

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

295 Responses to Why DC’s Low Graduation Rates?

  1. beleester says:

    Plausibly, kindly school officials will find loopholes that allow all of those 19% of moderately-off-track children to graduate, DC’s actual graduation rate will be 62% (right on the trend line for the graph above), and this whole episode will be remembered as “that one time a scary report underestimating the graduation rate came out”.

    This hypothesis is testable: What fraction of “moderately off-track” students ended up graduating in previous years?

    • Deiseach says:

      Plausibly, kindly school officials will find loopholes that allow all of those 19% of moderately-off-track children to graduate

      If salaries, promotions, funding and not being made a scapegoat in the local and national media are tied to “percentage of students graduating”, you bet your bippy they’ll find a way 🙁

      I don’t know what the solution is to this: yes, a system of evaluating teachers and rewarding good ones is needed, yes there has to be some kind of measure about how is the system working and ‘how many kids stay in school till graduation’ is one, but tying reforms to exam results/graduation rates does incentivise for fudging and fraud.

      • beleester says:

        Yeah, it’s plausible that it happens, I’m asking how often does it happen, and does that match Scott’s prediction that all the “moderately off-track students” will somehow get back on track?

        If someone’s run this “how off-track are students?” report in previous years, this should be something we have numbers on.

        EDIT: According to the report, “moderately off-track” means “failed a class or two, but can fix it through summer school.” It might not actually take much fudging to get them back on track.

  2. gbear605 says:

    A related issue to the graduation fraud signalling is grade inflation at colleges, especially Ivy Leagues. Princeton tried to stop grade inflation, and suddenly all the top law schools and phd programs and so forth accepted a lot fewer students from Princeton. The students successfully lobbied for grade inflation to return shortly after.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      This is why standardized tests are the only fair solution. See eg here.

      • christhenottopher says:

        Do that and wouldn’t you know it, schools start helping students cheat on the standardized tests. To be fair, tests from outside agencies where the schools don’t create or grade the tests would be WAY harder to cheat, but that’s probably why schools (and parents of average/below average students) would hate that idea.

        Of course, given how widespread cheating or low standards are (the Atlanta scandal I linked comes from one of the states that is furthest below the test scores/graduation rate line…if the states with relatively tough standards still cheat what about everyone else?), and given the huge scandal that erupts every time cheating is uncovered (11 teachers got prison time or house arrest in my example), that is a pretty strong signal there aren’t easy ways to significantly increase graduation rates/scores. If schools could do easy to implement reforms that improve student performance honestly, why resort to cheating?

        • DavidS says:

          Could you use standardised tests to calibrate institutions rather than judge individuals? Everyone awards their own degrees but e.g. 5% of students do some test of skills/knowledge you would expect all courses to develop. You can then compare how people with same standardised results do in different colleges.

          • christhenottopher says:

            See albatross11’s comment on Goodhart’s law for a better summation of the problems that arise from that than what I can give.

        • j1000000 says:

          As an aside, Ryan Coogler and Ta-Nehisi Coates are making a movie about the Atlanta scandal. I am sort of fascinated by what that will look like. Plausible that the teachers who went to jail will soon be viewed as American heroes by liberal segments of the population.

          • christhenottopher says:

            I don’t really hold any particular animus against the individual teachers. The whole system is set up to encourage cheating at basically every level. These teachers were just low enough on the totem pole that they didn’t get to set the rules so their cheating would no longer count as cheating. That said, they aren’t really heroes either. But maybe we’ll get a nuanced story out of this movie. After all, Black Panther was good!

          • j1000000 says:

            @christhenottopher: Yeah, I don’t have any animus either, and I think the lengthy jail terms for the teachers are crazy.

            Could be a good/interesting movie, for sure. I am just interested to see whether it will cross over from nuanced into hot take territory.

      • The Nybbler says:

        As it turns out, we already have a standardized test for high school level education: the GED. Make passing that necessary and sufficient to be considered having successfully achieved secondary education, and you can get rid of the chicanery. Or at least have uniform chicanery.

        • Toby Bartels says:

          Ironically, getting a GED is lower status than graduating high school. I work at a community college that has a thriving GED programme, and while that's not my area (I mostly teach undergraduate-level courses for future transfer students), I still hear about how our GED graduates can't get jobs that require a real high-school diploma and won't accept a GED.

          • Steve Sailer says:

            A fair number of people get their GEDs in jail, so James Heckman reports that a lot of employers associate a GED with having been locked up.

          • Toby Bartels says:

            Yes, and more generally, having a GED is a sign that you did something wrong in high school. Once it's decided that the high-school diploma is better for whatever reason, the fact that you didn't manage to get it speaks for itself.

          • Watchman says:

            None of which objections address The Nybbler’s point though that passing the GED would be a useful way of setting an academic standard for obtaining a high school diploma on graduation…

          • SamChevre says:

            Getting a GED is lower-status than graduating high school

            Yes, this, very much so. I have a GED; I was SO happy when I graduated from college that I could stop putting that on applications.

          • The Nybbler says:

            Yeah, a GED is low status. I don’t know if that’s because of the association with criminals and delinquents or just remnants of a time when a high school diploma meant more than it does today. But as Watchman notes, if a GED (or the same test with a different name, perhaps the Secondary Education eXit test) were a requirement for a diploma, it wouldn’t be low-status any more.

          • Toby Bartels says:

            @ Watchman & The Nybbler

            Yeah, I'm not trying to argue against using a test this way because it has low prestige; I'm just noting the irony if this test is more reliable that it's not treated as such.

          • toastengineer says:

            I mean, I went straight from GED to one relatively prestigious technical and one very prestigious playground-for-oligarch-spawn college and my SATs weren’t _that_ impressive. I did get it before I would have graduated HS, though, maybe someone noticed that.

          • Toby Bartels says:

            @ toastengineer : So there’s hope that the GED can get respect in appropriate contexts then.

          • Anthony says:

            toastengineer – California has a different test, the CHSPE (California High School Proficiency Exam) that you can take before you are 18, and the GED after. I suspect the low status of the GED doesn’t cling to the CHSPE.

      • Deiseach says:

        This is why we have the state national exams of the Junior (formerly Intermediate) and Leaving Certificate in Ireland, but even there, over the years there has been an element of fudge creeping in: grades have gone from simple “50-60% is D and a pass” to a constellation of various systems where we ended up with a 14-point scale which has now been revised down to an 8-point scale, and even since my time the lamentation has been about the points race – the marks needed to get into a university course – so there has been an element of grade inflation there as well.

        Now they’re pushing for more continuous assessment and coursework to count for overall marks and less the “all or nothing” of the final exam, and I don’t know how that will work out: it’s perhaps a better method of assessing progress than ‘have a bad day on the day of the exams and fail’ method, but again there will creep in the pressure on teachers to mark their students as highly and softly as possible so schools can present “we have X percentage of students scoring Y grades”.

        The US is possibly too big for a standardised national system, since the market is just too valuable; giving it to one company (and I bet it would go to tender to an outside private company and not the government) would invoke howls of anguish from competitors, and if you have a slew of different companies offering different tests, how standardised is that? An objective test is a good idea, but again – the problem there is ‘teaching to the test’, kids whose parents can afford it getting them grinds, poorer students being discarded and maybe ending up in sink schools where all the ‘stupids’ go because the schools want to maximise the percentage of their students who get good grades and so on.

        I do think schools can’t do it all; there may be an element, however large or small, of crappy teaching and crappy schools and crappy methods, but if the kids are coming from homes where there is no interest in education, the parent(s) aren’t able to help them with homework or don’t care, there is poverty and instability and not even a pencil to write with in the home – that makes a huge amount of difference to overcome that a school can’t simply make disappear in the time the kid is in school.

        • Enkidum says:

          I don’t know if this is the case in the States, but I assume that the problem with creating a “standardised national system” isn’t the size of the US (either in population or geography), but rather the issue of states’ rights. This is, oddly enough, one of the few areas in which Canada has the same issues, education being almost exclusively a provincial responsibility.

          • nzk says:

            In Israel, there is one exam, the Psychometry, that is done to ensure fairness. It is outside test, delivered by an organization of the Universities.
            There is still the Bagrut, which is the same for the entire country, and is administered by the Ministry of Education, but there are lots of varieties (Per language, Subject, etc) so it is hard to compare, also there is a lot of cheating, and a lot of inflation – the easiest thing a minister of Education can do to show improvement is make the exams easier.

          • Enkidum says:

            To give an example of provincial differences, I graduated from two high schools, because I moved from Quebec to Ontario in grade 10. Quebec high schools finish at grade 11, which is followed by 2 years of a sort of pre-college (CEGEP). I wanted to stay with my friends so crossed the border every day and finished my grade 11 at my old high school.
            Then I moved to Ontario, which at the time had high school continuing until Grade 13, so I did a further two years and graduated again. Actually I was part of the last Grade 13 cohort, as they moved to a Grade 12 graduation to sync up with (most of) the rest of the country.

          • Deiseach says:

            States’ rights is indeed a contribution to this, and I imagine entrenched beneficiaries of the system (I know that the educational textbook publishing companies in Ireland have a cosy little cartel and lock on the system which does not encourage them to bring out one standard edition and keep prices down; God alone knows what it’s like in the US where one large state means a publishing company/other educational materials provider is talking about real money if it can get appointed to be Official Source).

            I’d hate, for example, to try and tackle California (apart from the “let the goddamn wildfires burn the entire place down and start over again”), and that’s only one state; trying to juggle fifty different sets of bureaucracies to make sure that, for example, a B in English in Wisconsin means the same damn grade and same level of work done as a B in English in Louisiana must be the kind of punishment Hell dreams up.

          • Enkidum says:

            Out of date, and you’ve likely read it, but Richard Feynman’s chapter in one of his later autobiographical volumes (I think it was What do You Care What People Think but am too lazy to check) where he talks about being on a textbook review board is incredibly depressing.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            Comparing the ONE test that all of Israel uses to keep education consistent though the entire country is similar to the way that New York City schools all use the same standardized tests to keep standards the same for all of their students, or the way that Florida schools do the same.

          • dlr says:

            Enkidum says:

            Out of date, and you’ve likely read it, but Richard Feynman’s chapter in one of his later autobiographical volumes (I think it was What do You Care What People Think but am too lazy to check) where he talks about being on a textbook review board is incredibly depressing.

            Here’s a link if you haven’t :


            Quote from their intro, (1999)

            In 1964 the eminent physicist Richard Feynman served on the State of California’s Curriculum Commission and saw how the Commission chose math textbooks for use in California’s public schools. In his acerbic memoir of that experience, titled “Judging Books by Their Covers,” Feynman analyzed the Commission’s idiotic method of evaluating books, and he described some of the tactics employed by schoolbook salesmen who wanted the Commission to adopt their shoddy products. “Judging Books by Their Covers” appeared as a chapter in “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” — Feynman’s autobiographical book that was published in 1985 by W.W. Norton & Company.
            To introduce a series of articles about corruption in schoolbook-adoption proceedings, we present here (with permission from W.W. Norton & Company) an extended excerpt from Feynman’s narrative.

            As our “Annals of Corruption” series unfolds, readers will see that Feynman’s account is as timely now as it was when he wrote it. State adoption proceedings still are pervaded by sham, malfeasance and ludicrous incompetence, and they still reflect cozy connections between state agencies and schoolbook companies.

          • skef says:

            Counting numbers and integers: not the same thing.

            Compromising on precision in earlier classes for the sake of comprehension, and introducing the nuances in later classes: a ubiquitous aspect of education used by the most thoughtful and well-thought-of teachers.

            Translating bases: an entirely ordinary activity for computer engineers, probably more so in the 60s than now. (Granted, there are a lot more computer engineers now than then.)

        • rlms says:

          if you have a slew of different companies offering different tests, how standardised is that?

          That is more or less the situation in the UK, and it seems to work pretty well. There are apparently seven exam boards in England, four of which dominate. A lot of them were originally set up by universities, and some still have vague links. Schools do shop around somewhat for the easiest exam board for each subject (and private schools often choose allegedly harder international GCSEs to make their results more impressive) but there aren’t major differences in difficulty.

      • Education Hero says:

        A significant portion of the political class would disagree that standardized tests are “fair”, due to disparate impact.

        • The Nybbler says:

          A significant portion of the political class would disagree that standardized tests are “fair”, due to disparate impact.

          That portion of the political class is “part of the problem”.

          • Education Hero says:

            That portion of the political class is “part of the problem”.

            My point was that this part of the problem cannot be hand-waved when considering policy proposals, given that they represent those with low graduation rates and rule with the support of educational and media institutions.

        • Cliff says:

          A school I know had an admissions policy that was primarily test-based, which resulted in very few NAM. They decided it would be more fair to take into account other considerations- outside activities, etc. This resulted in even fewer NAM. Finally they gave up and admitted an extra 10% of the class that was exclusively NAM.

          • sarth says:

            15 seconds of googling failed to reveal what NAM refers to. Can you clue me in?

          • Evan Þ says:

            @sarth, “Non-Asian Minority.”

          • Education Hero says:

            Finally they gave up and admitted an extra 10% of the class that was exclusively NAM.

            Then that school was insufficiently creative and/or pious in its dedication to social justice.

            The latest approach is to redefine achievement to create greater equality, by emphasizing genuine investment in the common good. Greater value can be assigned to collective action, authentic experiences with diversity, and contributions to one’s family, all of which are traits that can be inferred to be lacking in traditionally over-represented groups. Finally, admissions procedures can de-emphasize quantitative academic criteria, in order to deflate undue academic performance pressure.

            Alongside a sufficiently opaque admissions process, this can ensure a more (socially) just representation of NAM.

        • Deiseach says:

          That’s a chicken and egg situation; to be fair to schools, when you have pupils who are coming in to school in the morning (if they make it in) having had nothing to eat, and whose meal when they get home in the evening is likely to be a bag of snacks and junk food, and where there is domestic turmoil (mum’s current partner is fighting with her, may well be kicked out, and a new boyfriend is on the cards), there’s no family support for education and no kind of interest in “do well in your exams and you can get a job”, very likely to have behavioural/psychological problems and there’s violence and petty crime as distractions, schools can realistically only do so much. So a student who gets a D or C on a standardised test from those circumstances may, in actuality, be doing as well as a student getting a B or A from better circumstances – but on a league table, “Dumphill Comprehensive has 59% of pupils scoring D” against “St Snooty’s Private College has 78% getting A* and going on to Oxbridge”, then one school is going to be judged to be failing. And it may be failing in one sense, but not another.

          On the other hand, if the schools are being used as holding pens between “too young to be kicked out of home” and “going on to jail in the near future” then we’re no longer talking about education but something else. And having fake “graduations” of students who haven’t achieved a basic level of competence means that qualifications are worthless for practical purposes, and drags down those students who have done the work and are able. Making it so that “disparate impact” or “disadvantage” is the smokescreen behind which is hidden the directive “make sure you get 80% graduating, even if you have to fill in the forms for them and fake everything” is not helping anyone, particularly the kids.

          How to cut the Gordian knot – that’s the problem.

          • deciusbrutus says:

            If we were interested in helping those kids, we wouldn’t be talking about how graduation rates correlate to test scores, we’d be talking about how test scores correlate to student outcomes.

            Signalling “Children are our future” is the entire purpose of the politics around education. If anyone actually gets educated that’s a side effect.

    • Protagoras says:

      Got a citation for this? A decent amount of work goes into PhD program admissions at least (I don’t know anything about law school admissions), and it would surprise me greatly if people performing that task at top schools weren’t aware of what Princeton was doing and, if Princeton really was deflating grades, correcting for it (to the extent that they were basing decisions on grades in the first place, which is not necessarily automatic for PhD admissions anyway).

      • gbear605 says:

        I heard it second hand, so I believe that a lot of it regarding admissions might just be speculation on the part of students. One reason grade deflation might cause fewer students to get into law school or med school is that those program want to keep their stats high.

        A little googling finds little evidence either way for admission rates, and that I apparently was misinformed about how long it took to be rolled back – ten years in reality.



      • Toby Bartels says:

        It could still make a difference for marginal students. Ignoring GPA, two students seem equally good, which is acceptable but not great, and you're going to admit one of them. The one with the lower GPA went to Princeton, which explains the lower GPA, but still, are you going to actually pick them over the one with the higher GPA?

        Let me share an anecdotal story. I graduated from Caltech with a 2.7 GPA. On the one hand, Caltech is one of the most prestigious schools in the country, with MIT one of the two most prestigious STEM schools. On the other hand, 2.7 is a mediocre GPA, a high C. In 2000, I wanted to join the PhD programme at the University of California, Riverside. On the one hand, the UC system is one of the most prestigious state university systems in the country. On the other hand, UCR was then the least prestigious of the nine schools in that system (it's now the second least prestigious of ten).

        All in all, going from Caltech to UCR was a big step down for me, but I had good reason: UCR was the school with the professor that I wanted to work with. And that professor wanted to work with me, so UCR wanted to take me, indeed they were glad to get me. And I had an excuse for my lousy undergraduate GPA, which was that I basically stopped going to class when I had depression during my junior year. (At another school, with a note from my doctor, I might have gotten special permission to have those Fs removed from my record; at Caltech, with a note from my doctor, I got special permission to not be forced to drop out.)

        But in the UC system, you cannot be admitted to a PhD programme with a GPA below 3.0. We got around that: I was admitted to the master’s program, and after a year, I applied to transfer to the PhD program, and my one year of graduate-level work gave me a 4.0 GPA for that. But I was basically on probation that first year, with limited financial support, not allowed to be a teaching assistant, and taking on debt that I still have not repaid. (In contrast, Caltech has deep pockets and generous need-based financial aid, and I owe nothing on that.)

        So in summary, they wanted me in their PhD programme, I had an excuse for my bad GPA, but we ran into a hard rule that at least had to be bent. In the statistics, I show up as a failed candidate for PhD admission, and while that overstates my failure, I did suffer some consequences for it. There was no room to say it's a 2.7 from one of the two best undergraduate institutions, or it would have been more like 3.6 with a medical exception. A really top school is less likely to have a hard and fast rule like this, or so I assume, but if UC Berkeley does, then that's enough to matter for a lot of marginal Ivy graduates.

        Epistemic status: after nearly 20 years, between my imperfect memory and the possibility of policy changes, nobody should consider it a verified fact that that the University of California requires a GPA of at least 3.0 for admission to a PhD programme.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          True story: about 15 years ago I was walking across the Caltech campus and fell in with a crowd prospective students and their parents following a sophomore tour guide.

          One of the parents asked the guide: “How hard is Caltech?”

          She replied, “Well, when I was a freshman … it was … it was …” And then she broke into tears.

          She sobbed for about ten seconds, then smiled wanly and said, “But it’s much better now.”


          • Toby Bartels says:

            When I started at Caltech, the entire first year was Pass/Fail, to take the pressure off.[*] By the time I left, they changed it so that the Spring quarter was graded. The purpose of the change wasn't to make it harder; it was so that students who dropped out would have a GPA to report on their transfer applications.

            [*] I completely forgot about this when calculating the 3.6 in my previous comment. On the other hand, I did pass some classes in the Fall term that year, so there are errors both ways.

          • Randy M says:

            a sophomore tour guide….She sobbed for about ten seconds, then smiled wanly and said, “But it’s much better now.”

            Probably a case of the school using difficult intro classes to weed out the less capable before they devote much concern in the more complex fields.

          • skef says:

            Probably a case of the school using difficult intro classes to weed out the less capable before they devote much concern in the more complex fields.

            In the case of Caltech (at least around Bartels’ time) it would have had more to do with psychological acclimation. The courses specific to many sub-fields got less intense as they got more specialized in junior and senior years, but most also had very difficult courses up through at least Junior year. For example, almost everyone in an engineering track had to take Applied Math 95 (generally junior year, perhaps sophomore year for those placing out of Math 1), and for physics majors there was an infamously difficult lab course, and a relativity-with-tensors theory course typically taken senior year (although I don’t remember if the latter was strictly a requirement).

            One either had to adopt a very different sort of life, or leave.

          • gemmaem says:

            Ah, ACM95. I used to love being a TA for that course. The level of adoration students would give you, as a teacher, for meeting the standard of “managed to make any sense out of any of this at all” was remarkably high. I felt so useful.

            More and more students seem to be taking it in sophomore year, these days. Caltech does not get easier. Caltech does not inflate grades. Caltech graduates a bunch of incredibly smart people with persistent inferiority complexes who head off to grad school and note with mild bafflement that somehow the seniors they are teaching seem to be learning something for the first time that they remember from sophomore year…

          • skef says:

            It used to be “AMA 95”. The spring term was one of my two C-‘s.

            The strategy of creating a social context that expects academic success, setting a very high standard for that success, and then not giving students the resources they need to succeed, is a novel and effective educational strategy. But it’s not so great for psychological well-being.

            I remember desperately hoping, often against hope, that a class would use a textbook, because that way some editor would at least have given the material a once-over. That made it much less likely that the prof’s “little edit” to last year’s assignment would result in the unsolved research problem you spent 10 hours on. (“Oops! Sorry about that.”).

            And then there was an occasional class where the homework bore little relation to the lectures, and the exams bore little relation to either. Fun.

          • skef says:

            who head off to grad school and note with mild bafflement that somehow the seniors they are teaching seem to be learning something for the first time that they remember from sophomore year…

            I’m still a little horrified that the weeder course for the UW Madison Computer Sciences major was … calculus.

        • Deiseach says:

          That’s a good question: is an average or mediocre grade from a really good school better than a great grade from an average or poor school?

          • Desertopa says:

            In terms of practical demonstration of skills, I think it probably is.

            I tutor at a company that provides coaching for students with various learning disabilities. One of my students has great enough impairments in comprehension and expression that I, my coworkers, and his support at another tutoring company, all thought it would be effectively impossible for him to complete the required coursework for this semester. Although he leans very heavily on our services, we can’t just outright write the assignment submissions for him, so under my watch he’s submitted assignments which at my school (decent but not top tier,) I would have expected to get failing or at best D- grades, because that was the best he could do at the level of comprehension I could instill. And I’ve watched him get back A and B grades for those assignments. And this is at a low-middling, not bottom-tier school.

          • Protagoras says:

            For graduate admission, they look at things other than grades. One of the unfortunate things that probably matters is how prestigious those who provided your letters of recommendation are (the actual content of the letters not so much, as by convention they’re all glowing), and going to a really good school means the professors you can get letters from are more prestigious. But they also look at GREs, and will try to find some way to look at what you’ve actually produced. Writing samples for philosophy, for example; I don’t know what other fields look at, but if there’s any way they can get a hand on something you actually did as an undergraduate (I’d be surprised if being involved in a successful research project of some kind didn’t help a lot in the sciences) they will want to do that. And my impression is that if they do have an actual sample of what you can do, this will make the largest impact on their decision, with other factors primarily influencing their tendency to worry that the sample is a fraud or a fluke. But I’m probably generalizing way too much, the other thing I’ve heard from people in the know on graduate admissions is that policies vary wildly.

          • Education Hero says:

            That’s a good question: is an average or mediocre grade from a really good school better than a great grade from an average or poor school?

            Because of the diverse range of educational quality in the United States, American colleges take high schools into account when considering grades. Admissions teams divide up their work geographically, allowing specialized readers to better understand what a GPA from a given high school actually entails.

            That said, the prevailing philosophy (as well as some policies, e.g. at the University of California) tends to value higher GPAs at lower-achieving schools more than lower GPAs at higher-achieving schools.

          • skef says:

            An average or mediocre grade from a really good school can only compete when whoever does the evaluation knows that it is a really good school, or its attitude about grade inflation, and so forth.

            If you have a 2.9 from Caltech and your interviewer asks “Is that in San Luis Obispo?” you’re probably fucked.

          • Andkat says:

            The problem is that many ‘elite’ schools can still exhibit substantial grade inflation (which realistically also just varies a lot by how rigorous a professor teaching a given course is, and student evaluations complaining about difficulty don’t matter a whole lot if they’re tenured)- my impression from having spoken with faculty and students of relevant backgrounds in grad school is that MIT and Caltech are generally well-known for having an elevated standard of undergraduate rigor, but you’d need to spread the word pretty wide if you’re Princeton fighting grade inflation while Harvard and Yale proceed with business as usual. I.e. a low grade at an elite school without a well established reputation for unusually intense rigor can also be rationalized easily as ‘he slacked off’ or ‘he got in for some bullshit reason’ (legacy, athletic scholarships, etc.).

            PhD admissions for the sciences heavily weight research background; as research is what graduate school is, it’s by far the most relevant piece of experience. All top programs expect at least a year or two of research experiences and the more the better; competitive research internships also help (NIH, Caltech SURF, etc.). Publications are a major boon but are not necessary; however, a lot of research experience and publications can compensate for sub-par academic performance (I know folks at top-of-field science programs who got a B average in undergraduate), and it is generally inferred in that case that weaker academic performance is a result of sacrificing time spent studying for work in the lab. Those who get little or no research experience in undergraduate will generally go for a separate masters, a post-bac program, or just work independently as a lab tech before applying to graduate school.

            School name is also a lot less consequential; the elite schools are still disproportionately represented but still only comprise maybe 30-50% (depending on year) of the admitted pool for the programs where I’ve been privy to it.

          • Eponymous says:

            That’s a good question: is an average or mediocre grade from a really good school better than a great grade from an average or poor school?

            Of course. It’s night and day.

            I went to a top UG, and now I teach at a big state U. The median student in my classes gets a B because that’s what I curve to. I can’t say what their GPA would be at my undergrad because they wouldn’t get in.

            It’s true that the top students in my classes are legitimately very good. Unfortunately, there’s no way to accurately communicate this because I have to curve to the median. They hit the ceiling.

            Before graduate school I worked in the private sector for a bit and sat in on some hiring meetings. We pretty much only looked at people from top schools, and we didn’t put much weight on GPA (though non-zero). I’m not saying that our hiring process was optimal, but I suspect it was representative.

          • Steve Sailer says:

            When I was applying to college in 1975, Stanford was notorious for grade inflation.

            And we all know how Stanford has paid a terrible price for its notorious grade inflation ever since.

            Oh, wait, Stanford is now pretty much on top of the world?

            So maybe grade inflation isn’t a self-destructive practice, at least not if you own, say, 8000 acres in the heart of Silicon Valley?

          • skef says:

            One thing that always bothers me about grade inflation discussions is the premise, often left implicit, that there was a time when grades were both a better measure of relative student ability and were actually used that way.

            If there was such a period it was quite short. The “gentleman’s C” wasn’t a bad thing; it was thought to be evidence of having good priorities, at a time where advancement by academic success was the exception rather than the rule, and a justification for Jew quotas.

            Anyway, I think it’s entirely plausible that the compression of the spectrum of grades in the face of the attention now paid to them is very much for the best. The world appears to be full of people resentful of not being able to judge this or that student on the C- they should have earned in second year French, with the justification for doing that left undefended. I’ve been involved in some hiring cycles — they’re dumb enough as it is.

          • cassander says:


            A world with gentlemen’s Cs is at least a world where has the option of measuring by merit. The current world, of gentlemen’s As, is one where even if you want to, you can’t, because everyone looks the same.

          • skef says:

            No, a world of gentleman’s C’s is a world with the option of measuring by grades.

        • Protagoras says:

          I also do not know UC policies as a whole, and certainly don’t know how they have changed over time, but I know for a fact that it was possible to be accepted to a UCSB PhD program in 1993 with a below 3.0 undergrad GPA.

          • Protagoras says:

            @Education Hero, Evidently policies have changed since 1993. Or the grad division posts nonsense that has nothing to do with how individual departments actually make their decisions; I expect the former is more likely, but bureaucracy being what it is the latter is not impossible.

          • Education Hero says:

            Or the grad division posts nonsense that has nothing to do with how individual departments actually make their decisions; I expect the former is more likely, but bureaucracy being what it is the latter is not impossible.

            I’m a higher education consultant formerly employed by UC admissions, and I have never heard of any student accepted without meeting college-wide or departmental minimum GPAs (by contrast, a number of pathways are provided to do so for undergrad admission).

            In fact, merely satisfying the minimal standards would be extremely unlikely to secure acceptance unless the rest of the application is far stronger.

          • Protagoras says:

            @Education Hero, Then policies have changed since 1993, which I said was the more likely option. I also don’t understand why you keep repeating “meeting minimal standards is not sufficient for admission;” I don’t know who ever said or implied otherwise.

          • Toby Bartels says:

            @ Education Hero :

            Wow, if that's a UC-wide policy (which it may not be), then it's even stricter than it was in 2000 when I started grad school (which was in turn even stricter than in 1993 when Protagoras's acquaintance started grad school). After all, I was allowed into a graduate programme at least.

            In any case, it makes clear the point about Princeton: if only one school bucks the trend of grade inflation, then that school's graduates will certainly be at a disadvantage, at least at UCSB and so probably elsewhere.

            Regarding the need for more than minimal requirements, the rest of my application was much better: excellent GRE scores, and a near-ideal Statement of Purpose (in which I described the research programme of one of the tenured professors and noted that we'd been corresponding about it for the previous five years and that he'd invited me to apply). I doubt that I would have been accepted to any programme at all without that.

        • yodelyak says:

          I don’t feel like sharing my exact story, but *this*. Ivy econ degree, B+ overall gpa, college story includes significant personal health/family hardships whatnot, seemingly got me the same treatment from law school admissions as a 3.2 from University of Phoenix. That sorta makes sense, since law schools don’t have that many students, and so even 5 looks-good-to-US-News’-algorithm students can move a school’s ranking (outside the top 14–those are pretty rock solid I think, although partially that’s because of how aggressively they play this game) up or down. I once heard my law school dean say that if she tried to buy a ranking point with scholarship cash (which all the schools try to do, to some extent) she figured one ranking point was worth roughly $1million.

          Edits for clarity: by “makes sense” I mean it makes no sense at all, but it’s nobody’s fault. U.S.News heavily weights the available objective-ish aggregate data (LSAT, undergrad gpa), employers care about law school prestige, law schools care about being able to promise employment to students and/or prestige, U.S.News is students’ and employers’ best window into prestige and employment. Result: undergrad grades matter for getting into law school.

          • Deiseach says:

            I suppose where it gets murky is when you have two candidates: one with low-ish grade from a good school and one with a good grade from a mediocre school – which one is better? How do you decide? Do you think “even to get a poor result in Really Brainy College means they are decent” versus “if they could get this grade attending Bottom Scraper U they must be bright”?

          • Quixote says:

            Hmmm. That doesn’t entirely match my own anecdotal information. The experience of people I know / knew who went to law school (at least a 100 acquaintances and 6 close friends) was that for students applying from elite colleges (top 10 large research university or top 5 liberal arts) to elite law schools (top 6 or 7 depending on year, basically UPen or better) the perception was that LSATs were pretty much the only thing that mattered with huge grade discrepancies (barely passing classes vs A/A- average) mattering about the same as minor LSAT discrepancies 178 vs 180.

      • stevphel says:

        Check out this landmark study on grade attribution:

        When explaining others’ behaviors, achievements, and failures, it is common for people to attribute too much influence to disposition and too little influence to structural and situational factors. We examine whether this tendency leads even experienced professionals to make systematic mistakes in their selection decisions, favoring alumni from academic institutions with high grade distributions and employees from forgiving business environments. We find that candidates benefiting from favorable situations are more likely to be admitted and promoted than their equivalently skilled peers. The results suggest that decision-makers take high nominal performance as evidence of high ability and do not discount it by the ease with which it was achieved. These results clarify our understanding of the correspondence bias using evidence from both archival studies and experiments with experienced professionals. We discuss implications for both admissions and personnel selection practices.

      • zzzzort says:

        PhD admission procedures are not all that careful. It’s generally a committee of a half dozen overworked faculty choosing a relatively small number of people to accept. Our department did a first sort by GRE score, even though everyone knew that GRE scores aren’t very good predictors of success, and then just started picking people to accept until they hit the number they wanted. Unless one of those faculty members happened to have heard that Princeton was changing how they grade it is completely expected that it would change admission rates.

      • Anthony says:

        Ph.D. admissions will be different, because you’re really applying to a professor, not a department but…

        I worked for a semester in the admissions office of the U.C. Berkeley Business School. (Before they named it after the avocados.) They prided themselves on being a strongly quantitative program, and that showed in the admissions standards. We graded everyone on a 100-point scale. The top GMAT quantitative score, or close to it, was worth 30 points. A 4.0 from your undergrad was worth 30. Work experience was worth up to 20 points, depending how long and how responsible. Other factors could be up to 20 points.

        For the grades, a 3.9 to 4.0 was 30, and you lost 3 points for each 0.1 lower your GPA, until you were close to 3.0. If your degree was in engineering, a physical science, or math, you got a 3 point bonus. If your degree was in psychology or undergrad business, you got a 3 point penalty. (I asked about that – “undergrad business programs aren’t quantitative enough”.) Education was a 5-point penalty. If your college was really fourth-rate, you got a 3 point penalty; the top 30 or so colleges got you a 3 point bonus. (By the way, if you went to Santa Cruz, every graduate admissions manager hates you, because your file can’t be given to a low-paid undergrad clerk like I was.)

        Princeton was probably one of those with a 3 point bonus. So was CalTech. They weren’t going to give anyone more than that even if the college had demonstrated significant grade deflation. So big grade deflation by one college would hurt their graduates’ chances.

  3. spinystellate says:

    I got this in my blog feed (Feedly) 8 minutes ago, noticed an error in reasoning, came here to comment on it, and noticed it was already corrected in the version on the site. I’m impressed.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      I assumed everyone who reads my blog through RSS feed had already given up on me as hopelessly dense, given how many just-after-posting edits I have to do before things are remotely satisfactory.

      • Randy M says:

        Well, I feel better for using the same method as a commenter.

        • Toby Bartels says:

          For what it's worth, I read comments through WordPress email notifications, so I only see the original version unless it's an early comment from before I subscribed to the post, I click through to reply to the comment, or I see a later comment that quotes the earlier comment. Whereas for Scott’s top-level posts, I always click through to read online, because I know that there's bound to be substantial edits!

      • wfenza says:

        I read on Feedly, but it usually updates with corrections made after publishing.

      • Markus Ramikin says:

        I always follow the link. Or have, until today. It seems I’ve been missing the good stuff!

  4. Nornagest says:

    We make fun of states like Mississippi and Alabama, but both have graduation rates around 80%. The lowest graduation rate in any of the fifty states is in Oregon, which still has 69%. And we are being told DC is 42%!

    The obvious question to ask at this point is: how many of these numbers are complete bullshit, too?

    (ETA after reading the rest of the article: I see we are in accord.)

    • shmohawk1 says:

      Based on my time working in public schools, the answer is pretty much all of them.

      I’d lay cash money that there is not an urban school district in the country that doesn’t do bullshit “graduations.” Likely precious few suburban or rural ones, either.

      • Education Hero says:

        My experiences working in public schools corroborate this as well.

        • albatross11 says:

          ISTR reading that one of the sources of big differences between states was how they gamed the rules to exclude low-performing students (special needs, english language learner, etc.) from taking the tests.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          I think my own son might not have been supposed to graduate from high school because he blew off a senior project, but then Something Happened and his requirement to do it Went Away.

          On a totally unrelated note, I need to ask him why he has so little respect for modern institutions. It’s a mystery.

    • kaakitwitaasota says:

      What exactly is up with Oregon? It’s a relatively wealthy state with not that many ethnic minorities. Is it just being honest about graduation rates?

      • christianschwalbach says:

        After re reading the OP, this shot to mind. Ive visited Oregon a fair amount, and this data seems really off….I do indeed wonder if its a true accuracy issue, or some stats error

  5. wfenza says:

    Is city-level data not available for these kinds of metrics? It seems kind of silly to compare D.C., which is a city, to state-level data.

    • Aceso Under Glass says:

      Came here to say this. Urban districts do worse than suburban districts, and DC’s suburbs are out of its boundaries.

    • Toby Bartels says:

      The District of Columbia has a larger population than the State of Wyoming. But that doesn't help with Aceso's point.

    • christhenottopher says:

      My hometown is actually not a terrible comparison point. The city of Atlanta has about 2/3rds the population of DC and nearly identical racial demographics (DC is 49% black, 43% white while the city of Atlanta is 51% black and 41% white). The latest data is that the Atlanta Public School system had a graduation of 77% in 2017.

    • Chlopodo says:


      In addition to what Aceso Under Glass said about urban-vs-suburban districts, it might also just be a statistical illusion. I.e. a single state could have many individual cities, districts, or otherwise-defined “areas” which vary as far from the center of the cluster as D.C. does. But all of that variation would cancel itself out when you average them together, so that each state taken as a whole regresses very near to the mean.

    • deciusbrutus says:

      Most states’ overall statistics will end up dominated by their urban subset anyway.

  6. Steve Sailer says:

    You should check out how amazingly horrible public school students in Puerto Rico do on a special special Spanish-language version of the federal NAEP test that was redesigned from the ground up to be fair to Puerto Ricans after PR students bombed the first version. And they still do awful:

    “For example, among Puerto Rican 8th graders tested in mathematics in 2013, 95% scored Below Basic, 5% scored Basic, and (to the limits of rounding) 0% scored Proficient, and 0% scored Advanced. These results were the same in 2011. …

    “Puerto Rico’s test scores are just shamefully low, suggesting that Puerto Rican schools are completely dropping the ball. By way of contrast, in the U.S., among black 8th graders, 38% score Basic, 13% score Proficient, and 2% score Advanced. In the U.S. among Hispanic 8th graders, 41% reach Basic, 18% Proficient, and 3% Advanced.”


    One reason is that everybody who can flee the Puerto Rican public schools does so: about 23% of students in PR attend private schools compared to about 10% on the Mainland. But, I suspect, the reason they flee is because Puerto Rican school administrators are ripping off the public: PR spends very little per student on teachers, but spends a lot on administrators. In some especially shifty sounding administrative categories, PR spends more per student than any of the 50 states and less than only … Washington DC.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      Do you know if maybe failing school districts spend a lot of money on administrators in an effort to turn themselves around? Either because they’re optimistic that it could work, or because there are regulations saying that they have to commit to various turn-around programs and those programs take a lot of administrators to administer?

      • Steve Sailer says:


        Also, the worse the students in a school district, the more the teachers want to do a career transition into administration or downtown staffer jobs where they can finally get away from the little hellions into nice child-free offices full of grownups.

        In contrast, last I heard the mother of the Wojciciki Sisters (CEOs of YouTube and 23andMe) is still teaching at Palo Alto HS. Teaching is more of a pleasure in the Palo Alto school district than in many other districts.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        But, regarding Puerto Rico, I think the main reason there appears to be a lot of corruption and ineffectuality in the school system is because nobody really cares about Puerto Rico. It’s not a nation, it’s not a state, they don’t speak English, they don’t vote for President (although they do vote in Presidential primaries), it would seem racist to investigate, etc etc.

        America kind of cared about Puerto Rico when Castro’s Cuba was trying to show communism was better than capitalism. But that’s over, so nobody in the US mainland is much interested in keeping PR people from ripping each other off. The Democrats kind of hope the whole place collapses and everybody moves to Orlando and votes Democratic to give Florida’s electoral votes permanently to the Dems. And Republicans are way too dumb to figure out that they have an Electoral College interest in keeping PR functioning.

        Thus, there has been almost zero English-language media interest in how awful PR public school students score on the NAEP over the last half-dozen years.

        • Scott Alexander says:

          The “cares about” thing is a weird framing suggesting that everyone everywhere wants to be horrible, and it’s only stern looks from the national government (who alone are virtuous) that prevent them.

          Puerto Rico has about the same population as Costa Rica, which is considered to have a good education system. Why should the state government of the one do so much worse than the national government of the other?

          • Steve Sailer says:

            A couple of reasons:

            – People who don’t like how Puerto Rico is run can hop on a plane to Orlando tomorrow and be done with it. People in Costa Rica can’t do that quite as easily.

            – There’s probably more brain drain out of PR than CR. Lin-Manuel Miranda’s NYC political consultant dad, for example, might have made a decent governor of PR, but he’s in NYC. (Also, PR was an agricultural backwater of the Spanish empire compared to Cuba, which, for example, produced the world chess champion in the 1920s, Capablanco (sp?).)

            – Politics in PR perpetually revolves around the Big Question of statehood vs. continuation of commonwealth. There’s not much point in local good government questions.

            – Costa Rica has to scrape up most of its own revenue itself. PR gets a lot of subsidies from the US in welfare, tax breaks for corporations, and the like, so the standard of living was still quite high (pre-hurricane) relative to the poor governance.

          • Steve Sailer says:

            Stephen Hunter, the old Washington Post Pulitzer-winning movie reviewer, wrote a 2005 nonfiction book, “American Gunfight,” about the Puerto Rican nationalist conspirators who almost assassinated Harry Truman in 1950. Hunter was pretty impressed with the two gunmen, one of whom died fighting, the other of whom did 25 years and kept his mouth shut the whole time.

            My vague hunch is that the US in response to Puerto Rican nationalist terrorism pretty much bought off the caliber of people who might have been the natural leaders of an independent PR. This is a pretty humane way to maintain American imperialism, but it probably has costs as well besides the dollars.

            My impression (and I could be wrong), for instance, is that Lin-Manuel Miranda of “Hamilton” comes from a prominent old Nationalist family (thus, he gave a benefit performance of “Hamilton” for a PR terrorist pardoned by Obama — ironically, at the same Chicago theater that the PR nationalist apparently had bombed in the 1970s). But PR Nationalism has been a dead cause for decades, so why hang around PR?

            It could be I’m romanticizing in thinking that Puerto Rico ever had much hope of being a self-respecting country, but it’s definitely not today.

          • outis says:

            Wasn’t PR nationalism a dead cause to begin with? Looking at the many referendums they’ve had in history, the people who wanted an independent PR were always a tiny minority. Which makes the terrorism especially hard to excuse.

            On the other hand, many countries had independence movements that started amongst a bourgeois minority and took a while to get traction with the populace.

            And looking at the US, most Americans don’t want to wage wars in the Middle East, but since there’s a strong elite faction that really wants them, that’s what they keep getting. So perhaps the fact that the population of PR does not want independence is not that important, either.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          For example, Washington DC’s school system gets a lot of critical media attention. I live 3000 miles away and I could probably talk for 10 minutes about it off the top of my head. There are a lot of high IQ white people living in DC right now with small children who would love to not have to move to the suburbs and not have to pay St. Alban’s tuition, so this is a big topic.

          Puerto Rico, in contrast, gets zilch, nada, zippo in the English language press on the mainland. My 2015 blog post about PR’s NAEP scores was just about the first thing on the subject in English other than a few cautiously worded government press releases.

    • Mark V Anderson says:

      This is kind of strange. Are there NO elite private schools in PR? There must be some rich people there, even if not a large group. I assume there are a certain number of expatriates there with the big corps. IRS code 936 gave tax benefits to companies doing business in PR for many years. That code section is history, but I’ve heard there are still a bunch of big company operations in PR. I expect the expatriate kids would mostly score proficient or advanced. Aren’t there more of these kids than would round down to 0%? The number quoted just sound fishy.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        Last I checked, 23% of students in Puerto Rico went to private schools, which is not quite as high of a percentage as in San Francisco, but still is a lot.

        Actor Benicio del Toro is the son of a lawyer in Puerto Rico and his parents sent him to a boarding school in Pennsylvania.

        At the other end of the social spectrum, a lot of Puerto Rican kids start each school year in New York in English, then go to school in Puerto Rico in Spanish during the winter, then show up again at their New York school once the weather is nice in the spring. Not surprisingly, this lifestyle doesn’t do much for their test scores.

  7. Steve Sailer says:

    It’s not at all uncommon across the country for states or local school districts to (temporarily) implement, or at least announce, extremely stringent high school graduation requirements. For example, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger pushed through a requirement that to graduate from high school in California, you had to pass Algebra, Geometry, and, now, Algebra II. After all, who can’t pass Algebra II if they just put a little mental elbow grease into their effort?

    Year after year, local school districts delayed implementing the Algebra II graduation requirement for just one more year. Last I heard, LAUSD was finally going to do it, but then I got bored and stopped following the issue.

    An awful lot of fantasy rules are passed for making it tougher to graduate from high school, but then are never really implemented because, in truth, there are a fair number of decent kids who try pretty hard but just aren’t very bright, and educators really don’t want to hang the High School Dropout label on them for life.

    • outis says:

      Do you think America would benefit from a more structured high school system, with well-distinct separate tracks, as in many European countries?

      • Enkidum says:

        I’ve always thought of the separate tracks issue as unfair (it seems to end up that your life gets determined at age 12), but then the societies that implement it are often the ones I think of as the most fair, and I’ve never looked at it in depth, so…. *shrugs*

        • Aapje says:

          The best solution may be to have tracks, but facilitate moving between them at various points.

          • Enkidum says:

            Something like that, yes. I do remember even by age 12 it was clear to me that some of the stuff I was capable of and interested in learning (e.g. advanced math) was simply not something that a lot of other people in my class could do. So some kind of streaming would definitely help (?), or at least probably. But also I think the idea of physically separating the entire society into blue collar and white collar future workers (which is more or less the German system as I understand it – again I am nowhere near an expert on this) feels morally wrong. Like, I had to talk to people outside my class and interest group growing up, on a regular basis, and I think this was an objectively good thing.

          • nzk says:

            Tracks, as I understand them have their issues:

            1) They do kind of “set you up for life”
            2) The decision on the track is a lot of times not meritocratic. meaning parents with clout can push their kids into better tracks.

            But they have benefits:
            1) There are a lot of kids who can’t do “the academic” track well, but can be very good at the more practical tracks.
            2) Those kids in the academic tracks would drag it down, not letting it advance as fast.

            In the end, the societies that have this separation managed to assure good life for those who do well on the other tracks. They have good salaries, etc. That is why it is not that bad. But it is an ecosystem, I don’t think you can copy only one aspect and it would work.

          • Enkidum says:

            Yeah, I think some kind of partial tracking is probably ideal – some classes being completely mixed, others being fully streamed, etc. That’s more or less how most Canadian schools work.

        • John Schilling says:

          (it seems to end up that your life gets determined at age 12)

          As compared to the American system, which determines at the age of 0 that your life will be either college graduate with a middle-class desk job, or failure/dropout/loser, your “choice”?

          • Conrad Honcho says:

            I was 10 years old before I learned not everyone goes to college. I said to my mother, “Oh, so you don’t have to go to college?” and she said “No. You have to go to college.”

          • Enkidum says:

            Right, I’m not claiming my reasoning is good here.

        • Mary says:

          Shackling a child to listening fifty times to a lesson he had learned three years ago is not fair.

          Also a good way to teach loathing of the other kids.

      • Education Hero says:

        The American demographic/political/historical context would prohibit such a move, because the results would reflect greater disparate impact.

        Tracking continues to be highly controversial in the American education system, and the current political zeitgeist in public education is trending away from it (with a few exceptions such as Advanced Placement courses that are not regarded as “tracking”).

        Anecdotally, my experiences working in public education suggest that most policymakers as well as public school teachers (one of if not the most liberal occupation here) are also vehemently opposed to tracking. Consequently, implementation of greater tracking would likely face stiff resistance; this might explain why conservative education reformers have focused their efforts on charter and private schools.

        • Cliff says:

          You really can’t get away from tracking because to end it is such an incredible disservice to the students. Kids want to learn, if you stick a bright kid in a class with average Joes they’re going to be miserable because they’re going to be so bored. There’s really no good argument for not teaching kids as much as they are able and willing to learn.

          • Enkidum says:

            There is a good argument for forcing people of different economic classes, cultures, and intelligences to interact on a daily basis, however, especially when they are growing up. Streaming reduces that.

          • moonfirestorm says:

            Through some weird mixup (possibly weak grades in 8th grade science because I spent all my time listening to the kid who already knew college-level physics and chemistry and was happy to spend all day telling me about them) I was placed in a General science class in 9th grade (the lowest of the 3 levels we had at my high school), despite being in Honors for pretty much every other subject.

            It was actually a pretty nice ego boost, as the teacher and other kids quickly recognized I was way ahead of the curve, and I got to help some of the other kids along, while having a nice break from my other somewhat-hard classes.

            Could have done without the teacher trying to be the “cool teacher” by attempting to be “gangsta” though. His raps were the worst part of the class.

          • IrishDude says:

            There is a good argument for forcing people of different economic classes, cultures, and intelligences to interact on a daily basis, however, especially when they are growing up.

            Can you fill out the details of this good argument? Particularly given that your claim includes ‘forcing’ and ‘daily basis’.

          • Enkidum says:


            Just considering the “elites”: Being completely ignorant of the concerns, needs, and interests of large segments (presumably the large majority) of your society makes it extremely unlikely that you will be able to make good decisions about things that affect them. Without extensive interactions with them – yes, over a multi-year period – you do not have the requisite knowledge.

            I take “forced” and “daily” to mean “public school”, with the caveat that of course the wealthy can choose to pay for private schooling. But in many (most?) countries with decent public school systems, private school is quite rare until you get to the very wealthy.

          • Mary says:

            There is a good argument for forcing people of different economic classes, cultures, and intelligences to interact on a daily basis, however, especially when they are growing up.

            What is it?

            They need to learn to detest each other?

          • Mary says:

            Being completely ignorant of the concerns, needs, and interests of large segments (presumably the large majority) of your society makes it extremely unlikely that you will be able to make good decisions about things that affect them. Without extensive interactions with them – yes, over a multi-year period – you do not have the requisite knowledge.

            Children completely lack the judgment and knowledge to make their childhood interactions a good source of knowledge of their “concerns, needs, and interests,” and their childhood also means their concerns, needs, and interests are quite different in many respects from those concerns, needs, and interests that you will need to know.

          • Enkidum says:

            The situation in many countries right now is that a very large fraction of the most important and powerful people in that country, possibly even the majority, have never interacted in any meaningful way with people who are remotely representative of the vast majority of their country. This means they are fundamentally ignorant, on a very deep level, of what those people want and need. Public school is one way to get at least some of that missing experience. I have no doubt that a lot of American schools are pretty fucked up, but that is because America is pretty fucked up, for a variety of very complicated reasons, and some very simple ones. I see no moral justification for why the most powerful people in America should be allowed to grow up without encountering that in a very deep way. You want your kids to grow up with better childhoods than truly mixed education would allow? Make a better society.

          • albatross11 says:


            If you want to sacrifice your own children on that particular altar, it’s your choice. The rest of us who have any choices will be making sure our kids don’t go to school in places with gang problems, or where most of their class would be a couple years behind grade level.

          • SEE says:

            I see no moral justification for why the most powerful people in America should be allowed to grow up without encountering that in a very deep way.

            But untracked public schools already allow them to grow up that way. Never mind the ability for the elite to exit to private schools; public schools in the US draw their student bodies from the surrounding area, which results in parents choosing their neighborhoods to dwell in based on the schools, which then drives property values, which then stratifies who can live near the good schools.

            The result is that US public schools are already strongly stratified by socioeconomic status long before there’s any question of tracking by ability. Tracking, at worst, would not alter this at all; at best, it would rescue bright low-SES students from schools below their ability and set them up to succeed, bringing more diversity to the next generation of elites.

          • Mary says:

            Public school is one way to get at least some of that missing experience.

            So you claim. Again. Without addressing my point about how public school will do nothing of the sort. There is no way lumping together a bunch of kindergartners will translate into what you want.

        • rlms says:

          I think opposal* to tracking is one of those weird uniquely American things (in the field of education, legacy admissions are another). I can certainly understand not wanting to divide students up into schools by performance, but since you have to divide them into classes with schools somehow you might as well do so by grouping by ability.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            American schools typically do a thing just like tracking but don’t call it tracking .

          • Deiseach says:

            I think the opposition to tracking is based on “so you divide the kids up into three (or however many classes): the really bright, the average, and the stupids, and then you neglect the stupids and focus on the really brights, but that’s unfair because if you’re academically-focused school then you concentrate on how many will go on to college and tell the non-college kids by how you treat them, even if you don’t say it to their faces, that they’re stupid and failures, and they may not be: Joe may be a brilliant mechanic, plumber, or worker with his hands but not great when it comes to the book-learning side, this doesn’t mean Joe is stupid, but the set-up treats him as a failure not worth investing in, so Joe is not getting the education he needs and deserves”.

            I don’t think tracking/streaming is a bad idea by itself, so long as the low-achieving kids get the support they need; if they’re just left to sit in a classroom to fill in workbooks until it’s time for them to leave school, they’re not getting the education that they’re capable of and that they need.

          • gbdub says:

            The problem is that most of the “stupids” aren’t just stupid, they are stupid assholes and have all sorts of behavioral problems which teachers are ill-equipped to fix. They often get MORE, not less resources, but those resources are sucked up dealing with crap that doesn’t involve actual educating.

            I imagine most teachers would kill to have a class of dim-witted but diligent students instead of what they usually get.

          • IrishDude says:

            My high school (in America) had different versions of each class that grouped people by ability: AP level (for a subset of classes), honors level, A level, and B level.

          • Randy M says:

            I imagine most teachers would kill to have a class of dim-witted but diligent students instead of what they usually get

            The trouble is, the killing would be about 5+ per class, and if that kept up I doubt they’d be sending you diligent dullards to replace them.

          • laughingagave says:


            Yes, that. I once taught at a middle school with an A, B, C sorting system, and all the teachers constantly wondered how to get the C classes to at least do the work they were able to do. Those classes couldn’t even be allowed to use proper art supplies because they would immediately ruin brushes, paint each other, and leave everything a horrible mess when running out of the room at the bell.

            There were some nice C kids, and it seemed pretty sucky for them that they had to spend all their time in disorderly classes simply because they were bad at math.

      • skef says:

        I suspect doing so would be difficult to sustain or justify without a good deal more economic intervention and/or protectionism. When Jack decides to pursue career X and economic changes result in few X jobs, Americans can (and do) brush off his economic difficulties in saying that he made a poor choice, and should “retrain” (or just call him a loser).

        When the school system decides for Jack at age 12 that X is the appropriate career, that brush-off is more awkward.

      • gbdub says:

        America has tracking, but most of it is informal and very soft.

        In high school we had a “regular” and an “honors/AP” track, which seems more or less de riguer. My second high school also had some strong vocational programs (construction and automotive) for some percentage of the skilled trades set. Of course, none of that is actually indicated on your diploma, you either get one or you don’t, and everyone is physically at the same school.

        What formal tracking that exists is extremely coarse – whether or not you get your diploma in high school, whether or not you go to college, what degree you obtain in college.

        I say “coarse” because there’s little if any way to distinguish between the diligent kid who only wants a high school diploma and the loser who barely showed up but got passed anyway because the admins were sick of dealing with them and didn’t want to hurt the grad rate. There’s GPA, but that’s mostly garbage in HS due to grade inflation and general fudging for that grad rate.

        At the next level there’s again little to distinguish the “diligent but not academic superstar in community college to save some cash” vs. “moron with nothing better to do than hang out in a place they can’t fail out of”.

        Really it’s that lower middle that is worst served – the diligent but maybe a little dim, who would make great employees straight out of HS but are forced to take out loans for busy-work and a BS in BS at some college because otherwise they don’t have any “qualification” that the passed-to-keep-up-the-grad-rate jagoffs don’t also have.

        There are ways for the very top end to distinguish themselves, but it seems like in an effort to “leave no one behind” we’ve artificially raised the floor such that the just-below-average are stuck on the same level with the truly awful.

  8. Clocknight says:

    In my own experience, this is quite true. Too often in my school the majority of students graduate due to bonus points/retaking tests/school cheesing out ways to pass people. I know a sample size of 1 is quite weak, but whatever.

    I also wonder what this means to the educational system as a whole though (assuming it is true), if the majority of students aren’t “good” enough to graduate (without some form of aid). Either the students are incapable of learning or schools just fail them in doing so. It seems to me that in either case this system is inadequate.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      One possibility would be an Associate High School Diploma for successfully completing tenth grade. This would give the bottom 25% of students a pretty realistic goal to shoot for — kids want to “walk the stage” — and would help them distinguish themselves from the really bad apples. My impression is that the worst students and future criminals tend to drop out in 9th grade (at least at 4 year high schools).

      When the economy was strong in 2005-2006, a lot of the more decent Hispanic male students dropped out in 11th or 12th grade to get jobs.

      A lot of effort has since been put into keeping them in school and sending them off to start community college. When the economy was terrible, most kids hung around high school. I don’t know what’s happened in the last couple of years as a decent job market has returned. It could be that the cultural shift to completing 12th grade and walking the stage has permanently taken place, or Latinos might go back to dropping out to make $15 an hour. I don’t know.

      • johan_larson says:

        Or simply have two types of diplomas: the regular one, which signals you are ready for work, and the honours one, which signals you are ready for college. And make sure the regular one is actually meaningful; don’t give it out to the most hopeless slackers and troublemakers.

        • Evan Þ says:

          North Carolina has several sorts of diploma, or at least used to have them when I was in high school back ~2007. No idea how meaningful the requirements on paper proved to be in practice, though, which might explain why I’ve never heard of the lower diplomas actually being respected.

        • christianschwalbach says:

          This does seem somewhat analogous to the German system of tracking, at least when folded into a US schooling perspective. That being said, a system like this would require some extensive PR ( and by this I mean truthful marketing, not ‘spin”) , to signal the differences as being that of focus, and not promise. Unfortunately, I think in practice, this would unfairly give the Honours diploma types a signaling advantage should they decide to take jobs that the “Regular” Diploma types would track for. And then you end up with a major dilution issue

  9. Candide III says:

    I sure hope this happens. Think how unfair it will be for DC students if it doesn’t. Somebody who would graduate comfortably from any other high school in the country will be held back because they happen to have been born in DC during the year it decided to enforce standards nobody else enforced. If the true value of education is signaling, then the most important thing a school district can do is make sure it’s speaking the same signaling-language as everyone else.

    Indeed. Do you know Lao She’s Cat Country (1933)? Specifically chapters “School Days” and “Young Scorpion as Historian”. Excerpts don’t really do this undeservedly unknown book justice, but here’s Young Scorpion explaining the evolution of Cat Country’s educational institutions:

    When the new educational system first came into effect, our schools were divided into a number of levels like any other country’s, and the students had to start at the bottom and work their way up, one step at a time, through a system of examinations, before they could graduate. But in the course of two hundred years of improvement and advancement, we gradually did away with examinations. Any student who put in the required time could graduate, regardless of whether or not he attended classes. However, there remained a status inequality between a primary school graduate and a university graduate. Now, since we didn’t require either primary school students or university students to attend classes, why should anyone be satisfied with second best? Therefore we decided on a thoroughgoing innovation: anyone who went to school would be counted as a university graduate on the first day of classes. Let him graduate first, and then . . . come to think of it, since he has already graduated, there is no “and then”.

    Actually, this was the best of all possible systems for Cat Country. You see, statistically we have the highest number of university graduates of any country on Mars. Of course, being first numerically makes us feel good, makes us downright proud. We Cat Country people are the most practical people on Mars. If you want to estimate the relative worth of things, the most practical way is to count. And when you start counting the number of university graduates – well, no one else can match us. It’s a fact. Everybody knows it’s a fact, and everybody smiles with satisfaction.

    The emperor himself is very satisfied with the system. If he weren’t enthusiastic about education, how would we have so many university graduates? Thus, he has done well by his people and is pleased. The teachers also like the system, for under it everybody is a university professor; every school is the highest academic institution in the land; and every student is first in his class. Think of the honour and glory! Heads of families are pleased with the system too. Every seven-year-old brat is a university graduate, and the intelligence of the children is, of course, a credit to the parents. And the students? Well, they love it. If a child is lucky enough to be born in Cat Country and survive until the age of six or seven, he is sure to attain the status of university graduate./blockquote>

  10. entobat says:

    Somebody who would graduate comfortably from any other high school in the country will be held back because they happen to have been born in DC during the year it decided to enforce standards nobody else enforced. If the true value of education is signaling, then the most important thing a school district can do is make sure it’s speaking the same signaling-language as everyone else. Probably somebody should fix the system in general, but that needs to happen on a national level if it’s not going to leave thousands of unfairly-failed children as collateral damage.

    Doesn’t this just cause the same problem at a larger scale? The country changes the meaning of a high-school degree from “not the worst of the worst” to “actually moderately competent”. Now all the not-quite-competent students, who have been cursed to be born late enough not to skate by on the old standards, get screwed over because they don’t get to be in the good bucket anymore.

    • Scott Alexander says:

      You mean across time cohorts? I assume if it’s on a national level everyone knows about this, plus it’s mostly people from (about) the same time cohort competing for a job or admission to good colleges/med schools/whatever.

      • entobat says:

        Yeah, I mean across time cohorts.

        Imagine a toy model as follows: you have 60% good students, 20% medium students, and 20% bad students. Under the old rules, all the good and medium students get degrees and the bad students don’t. Then education reform comes in and raises standards, and starting in 2020 only good students get degrees.

        A medium student graduating in 2019 gets to have a degree, which places them in the “medium / good” bucket; the same medium student born one year later gets placed in the “medium / bad” bucket. Everyone knows that the meaning of having a diploma changed, but the medium students are still hurt. Employers are less willing to take a chance on medium students because they can no longer be confused for good ones, and the offers they do get are worse than under the old system because everyone knows there will be less competition for medium students now.

        If people are supposed to be adjusting for the actual meaning of a high-school diploma, and assuming the 43% number bears out, you might expect there to be companies spending a lot of effort to recruit this year’s graduates from DC (where the diploma is actually meaningful). On the other hand, it’s not like people are guaranteed to be paying attention…

        • zzzzort says:

          But in that toy model, the bad students go from being in the ‘definitely bad’ bucket to the ‘medium / bad’ bucket, and the good students go into the new ‘definitely good’ bucket. Assuming the total number of jobs/compensation remains fixed, this has to exactly even out the amount the penalty to medium students.

          • christianschwalbach says:

            Doesent quite work like that , in my view. Employers may hold out for a “Top” candidate, even if the numbers of such labeled are not statistically high enough to fill positions. This pressure may then lead to acceptance of medium students , but gradually, and in the meantime, medium students fall behind. In the original scenario , medium students at least have some chance to advance at pace with good students, and in some cases, may work harder than so called good students

  11. keranih says:

    Somebody who would graduate comfortably from any other high school in the country will be held back because they happen to have been born in DC during the year it decided to enforce standards nobody else enforced.

    I quibble most with the qualifier “comfortably”, but I also note that if the possession of a HS graduation certificate – in the hands of someone no more educated or skilled than the DC non-graduate – has that much impact, we have a much larger problem.

  12. Brandon Berg says:

    Somebody who would graduate comfortably from any other high school in the country will be held back because they happen to have been born in DC during the year it decided to enforce standards nobody else enforced.

    during => 18 years before

    Alternatively, born => in twelfth grade

  13. Godfree Roberts says:

    Shanghai had a similar problem in 1980: they were flooded with the children of poor, illiterate migrant workers from the most poverty-stricken corners of the empire.

    Today, according to the OECD, which tests the world’s 15-year-olds triennially.

    In 2009, when the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), tested children’s math, science and reading in seventy countries and reported, “Mathematics scores for the top performer, Shanghai, indicate an equivalent to over two years of formal schooling ahead of those observed in Massachusetts, a strong-performing U.S. State”.

    When Shanghai’s children drew further ahead in 2012, critics accused the city of excluding migrant workers’ children, of cheating, of using rote learning and of subjecting children to inhumane pressure.

    The OECD’s Andreas Schleicher responded, “We’ve actually tested twelve Chinese provinces and even in some of the very poor areas you get performance close to the OECD average,” adding, “Only two percent of American and three percent of European fifteen-year-olds reach the highest level of math performance in PISA, demonstrating that they can conceptualize, generalize and use math based on their investigations and apply their knowledge in novel contexts. In Shanghai it’s over thirty percent”.

    For more, read Charlene Tan’s Learning from Shanghai.

  14. encharitimone says:

    Just to add my two cents of experience: when I graduated, in a district just north of Dallas, TX, the graduation rate was counted as the fraction of those who started the year classified as a senior who graduated. Conveniently, you were allowed to drop out after sophomore year. So our official graduation rate was quite high (don’t have it on hand for my year, but my high school for this year is listed at 95%), but my graduating class was roughly 60% of my freshman class. And that’s before you factor in fudged grades or requirements!

    • Steve Sailer says:

      About a decade ago, James Heckman, the Nobel laureate social scientist at U. of Chicago, studied the real graduation rates and found they were much worse than the reported graduation rates. Heck looked at seven longitudinal studies, such NLSY79, and found that the high school graduation rate fell from about 75% in the late 1960s to about 70% by 2000.

      My guess is it stayed low until the economic wipeout of 2008, after which point high school graduation rates went up.

      I wrote up Heckman’s study here:


  15. Doug says:

    Even if the issue was fixed nationally, it’d still be substantially unfair to the birth cohorts falling just after the standards revisions. If the Class of 2017 graduated with super-lax fraudulent standards, but the Class of 2018 was graded honestly, that would be a major disadvantage for them. Marginal students from 2017 would have a high school diploma, whereas the equivalent student from 2018 would be a dropout. Eventually employers would recalibrate their standards over time, but it’d be very unlikely that the typical employer would distinguish between a degree exactly at the cutoff point.

    The only fair solution is to remove the fraud but accept the denigrated standards for high school diplomas. Students will be tested accurately and fraud will no longer be tolerated. But the cutoff point will be lowered to the point where graduation rates remain the same pre-reform. Eventually once we’ve accepted that “high school diploma” actually means something like “8th grade education”, then competent students can start getting their “high school diploma” in 8th grade. We can then add some form of public school degree existing between the super-basic “high school diploma” and traditional post-secondary vocational/academic degree. That probably moves us into a world where less kids need to waste time and money in college, and more skilled jobs for middle-intelligence students straight out of high school.

    • Harry Maurice Johnston says:

      As a practical example of (roughly) this sort of thing, see National Certificates of Educational Achievement. (We’ve never really had “graduation” per se.)

    • Deiseach says:

      Eventually once we’ve accepted that “high school diploma” actually means something like “8th grade education”, then competent students can start getting their “high school diploma” in 8th grade. We can then add some form of public school degree existing between the super-basic “high school diploma” and traditional post-secondary vocational/academic degree.

      I think that’s the English system? You do your O-Levels (though I see they’re now called GCSE) at age 16, then it’s a matter of choice if you stay on to do A-Levels at 18.

      Much the same in Ireland; you sit the Junior (formerly Intermediate) Certificate exam at age 15-16 and can legally leave school once you’re 16; if you stay in school, you sit (one of the) Leaving Certificate at age 17-18 (now most schools do Transition Year, that’s more age 18-19).

      The push towards increasing the school leaving age and encouraging staying in school to get the higher qualification was partly to do with the economy – manual/low-skills jobs drying up, the notion that a better educated workforce would attract more foreign investment (this was heavily emphasised in the 80s campaign by the IDA to attract multinational and tech companies) and I think we’re seeing the same here: the idea that the future will be split between the knowledge economy and the gig economy, and only education will get you into the former (hence the push for graduating from high school and going on to college).

      That’s a real problem that has to be addressed: if there are no longer going to be decent manufacturing jobs to absorb the former non-graduates from high school, what jobs are out there? And even those jobs need a higher level of education than previous decades, there’s no longer really room for “all you need to be able to do is push a broom/wipe up after the old person to get a job in a hospital or nursing home”, even those jobs require basic skills and attainments.

      • christianschwalbach says:

        yeah, what you just wrote is a serious issue worldwide in coming years, one that I think will hit with greater severity than we anticipate. Low graduation rates are bad enough as an indicator, but the continued job shifting is a much wider societal problem

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        if there are no longer going to be decent manufacturing jobs to absorb the former non-graduates from high school, what jobs are out there

        Wage subsidy. The market will create jobs if the price to employers is low enough.

        • Deiseach says:

          Wage subsidy. The market will create jobs if the price to employers is low enough.

          How low would it have to be to replace robots once again with workers on automobile assembly lines? That kind of automation happened to make the companies more competitive. Unless you’re going to pay a worker in a car plant literally less than a robot to do the same job less efficiently, the less academically successful will not be soaked up by the market.

          Again, if it’s “well go into the service sector!”, people need a basic amount of money to live on, and to be profitable employers need to keep costs down. If a worker is only worth six dollars an hour, and you have a potential pool of ten applicants for every job, you can probably push wages (which are the high cost to the employer) down quite a bit. So if we’re talking about wage subsidies, we may as well say UBI and be honest about it.

          • SEE says:

            Not quite. You get UBI for breathing. Wage subsidies are inherently contingent on earning a wage, however low.

            So, let’s assume the only job you’re able to do is worth $1/hour to an employer. Under a UBI model, you get your income (let’s say $360/week, equivalent of $9/hr for a 40-hour workweek), and then you probably don’t take a job paying $1/hour, because you have your income and $1/hr isn’t enough to give up your leisure time. Under a wage subsidy model, your choices are no job at $0/hr or an employer hiring you for $10/hr, with $1 of that coming from the employer and $9 from a government subsidy.

            The government spends the same money on you, but instead of being idle, you do actual productive work for an employer who wants that work done.

          • Toby Bartels says:

            @ SEE :

            The government spends the same money on you, but instead of being idle, you do actual productive work for an employer who wants that work done.

            You say that like that’s a good thing. But in fact, it makes no difference to the government, as you note, and it makes no difference to the employer, because $1/hr is the employer’s indifference price (you said that the work wasn’t worth any more than $1/hr to the employer). Whereas, compared to the UBI, I’m worse off: I’m working for $1/hr extra when my free time is worth more than that to me.

            More realistically, the work is worth a little more than $1/hr to the employer, just not enough that I’m willing to take the job. Even so, if the work is worth $(1+x)/hr to the employer, while my free time is worth $(1+y)/hr to me, where y>x, then the employer is up $40x/wk while I’m down $40y/wk (compared to where I’d be with a UBI), making things worse overall.

            To argue in favour of wage subsidies over a UBI as government policy (which you didn’t quite do, it just sounded like that), you’d have to argue that money is worth more to my employer than to me —not likely, since they’re probably richer than me. If it wouldn’t make sense for me to donate $40y/wk to a charity that gave the employer $40x/wk and wasted the rest, then it wouldn’t make sense for the government to replace a UBI with a wage subsidy. Or you could argue for some externality: maybe it’s good for the soul of the nation if everyone works at least partially for their living, or maybe the employer donates all of their profits to mosquito netting while I blow all of my money on AI research.

            But on a basic Econ 101 level, there’s no doubt that a UBI is a better policy than a wage subsidy.

          • christianschwalbach says:

            SEE…..those that want the extra money will do the work, and thereby have more to spend/invest/whatever. Those that dont will accept a lower level to have the time. That being said, we also need to look at trends in overall employment , which is that many jobs are indeed trending towards Gig status anyways, so rather than the masses clamoring for “work handouts”, it can be taken on something of a desire/need basis. Of course this doesent solve the issue of even less people potentially wanting really crappy jobs that people only take for the pay, but people do risky things for benefit all the time, so I do think there would be plenty wanting to go dig dirt in North Dakota, or suck out port o potties, or whatever

          • Toby Bartels says:

            I forgot this at the end of the next-to-last paragraph in my previous comment:

            Or to correct for some other market distortion; for example, if I'm actually perfectly happy to take the job at $1/hr, but this would violate a minimum-wage law. Then a wage subsidy lets us get around that, but a UBI does not.

          • Edward Scizorhands says:

            At an extreme level, wage subsidy is a lot like a UBI. I’m very skeptical that a UBI will work, but if it does work, than the wage subsidy will work, and as the wage subsidy grows it becomes more like a UBI.

            But at the less extreme level, that is, any level we will actually do in the near future, it increases employment opportunities for marginal workers. Start with a $1/hour wage subsidy (or just reduce employment taxes). Adjust the number up as society gets richer. Or adjust it down if society gets less richer temporarily. Note that this is something you absolutely cannot do with a UBI. If someone has spent the past 4 years at home collecting UBI checks, you can’t just turn them off and say “oh yeah, get a job.” But if someone has been providing value to his neighbors, he still knows how to have a job.

            Wage subsidy also enables lots and lots of social causes that want to hire people. Want to clean up the park? Pay people $4/hour to do it and the government will pay them $5/hour. You can hire people to strip down old electronics safely instead of sending them to China to get dumped into the sea. A lot of e-waste can be avoided if you can afford labor to repair old things instead of throwing the old thing in the trash and buying a new one (which is the logical answer when labor is expensive to the employer).

            Or whatever else you (anyone can be an employer) deem useful. Want to put on a play that people will enjoy but the ticket sales will just be slightly too little to make it worthwhile? You can hire actors with a wage subsidy.

            If we’re talking about what the world looks like in 400 years, sure, we might have UBI, but if we’re looking at what to do to in 2021 to make working-class people not feel marginally less distressed so they don’t vote for whatever version of Trump we have then, we’re looking at wage subsidy.

          • SEE says:

            But on a basic Econ 101 level, there’s no doubt that a UBI is a better policy than a wage subsidy.


            And you missed the best argument for wage subsidies when you were laying out the possibilities. The best argument is:

            “Wage subsidies increase GDP, employment, and labor force participation numbers; UBI doesn’t do any of that. Further, both employers and unions benefit from wage subsidies, the employers because they get the benefit of the labor and control over their workers, and unions because they draw their memberships and dues from people with jobs. And it straddles the left-right divide because you’re giving money to people and making them work in the private sector. It’s exactly the approach that’ll help us win the next election.”

      • Toby Bartels says:

        [In England] You do your O-Levels (though I see they’re now called GCSE) at age 16, then it’s a matter of choice if you stay on to do A-Levels at 18.

        I learnt about this system from reading Harry Potter. The O-levels are the OWLs (the letters O even both stand for ‘ordinary’) and the A-levels are the NEWTs. While Harry was at least expected to stay on at Hogwarts for years 6 and 7, he could only take courses (and subsequently take NEWTs) in subjects in which he had achieved sufficiently high grades on his OWLs.

  16. userfriendlyyy says:

    in the wake of an investigation that found city students were receiving diplomas despite having missed a significant amount of school.

    Looks to me like the policy they changed was losing credit for bad attendance. This might be from a few things. Kids might need to help out with the family finances. The only part of the job market that is doing well right now is low end unskilled workers who are willing to get paid crap (no matter how much the financial press wants to pretend otherwise, I listened to an hour of local NPR and the Topic was ‘call in and tell us how the booming job market is helping you out’, 20 callers not one had anything good to say and my state has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country). If you know you don’t have the grades for a scholarship, your family is broke and since we have effectively made going to college impossible for anyone but the offspring of the oligarchy, and you can find a minimum wage job easily; what exactly is the utility of that little piece of paper compared to the ability to put food on the table tonight?

  17. Alkatyn says:

    As a non-American I’ve always found the whole setup of high school graduation as a qualification in the US deeply weird, why does anyone value a certification that is set so locally and non-transparently? (I’ve also heard of cases where schools arbitrarily refuse to let a student graduate based on some perceived infraction, but I assume thats not normal)

    I assume this is one of those weird american federalism artifacts with not having a national curriculum. By why not just use standardised tests like SATs?

    • akidderz says:

      Think of education, in America and elsewhere, as mostly a sorting mechanism for employers. (See Caplan’s Case Against Education for a full treatment of this idea).

      The only thing that matters is the credential implied by the diploma. But it isn’t because it reflects “knowledge” it is because it reflects the ability to do what you are told, sit in a class, show up, learn some things decently competently (whether useful or not), etc.

      If this is the case, standardized tests don’t perform the same sorting mechanism that the diploma does. They add nuance (how good are you at a given test), and that is useful to sorting a bunch of graduates from each other, but it doesn’t execute High School’s basic role – separating those with the capacity to be domesticated into a workforce with those who cannot.

      • Wency says:

        Seconding this, HS performs much the same function as college by testing for conscientiousness. Sure, this guy is stupid, but is he the kind of stupid that actually shows up for work or the kind that regularly blows off work, does drugs, and gets in fights?

        An HS diploma is an imperfect barometer for those sorts of things, but it’s at least something.

        And I don’t think there’s much of a national entry-level job market for marginal HS grads. I.e., not many people barely graduate high school and then immediately move from Alabama to Massachusetts for work. If you graduated HS in the area, the people hiring you probably have a pretty good sense of what that means, and they likely even know your high school. So although “high school grad” implies different things in AL vs. MA, or even at one Boston-area school vs. another, the people hiring can likely make that judgement if it matters to them.

        For college admissions, it’s more of a challenge to figure out what, if anything, your HS grades indicate. So they’re always debating that. Though sometimes HS grades can be a handy way for colleges to sneak in affirmative action, such as by saying “we guarantee admittance to students who were in the top x% of their class”, when the top 5% at one school might be worse than the worst student at another school.

        • rlms says:

          when the top 5% at one school might be worse than the worst student at another school.

          Extremely unlikely. Assuming the two schools have IQ distributions that are shifted versions of the general population’s, for the top 5% of one to be the bottom 5% of the other would require a roughly 50 point IQ gap. I do not think that is plausible unless one of the schools is for students with mental disabilities (in which case they probably aren’t sending anyone to college).

          • Doesntliketocomment says:

            You are making two incorrect assumptions.

            The first is assuming the schools have shifted versions of the national IQ distribution. There are numerous reasons this wouldn’t be true, as there is a great diversity of high schools.

            The second is assuming that IQ would be main determinant in someone’s class rank. Imagine a top student at the lower end school, where having a modest interest in learning ensures that you were given extra attention and instruction. Move this student to a higher-tier school where their IQ is on par with the median-suddenly study habits and consistency would be far more important (as it always is in the middle of the pack) than their no longer exceptional IQ. they very well might end up as one of the worst performing students. That said, there is no way to find out unless you put them in that situation.

          • rlms says:

            Schools won’t have IQ distributions that are exactly normal with standard deviation 15, but (excluding things like homeschooling groups of ten people) they will all be roughly the same shape as the population, just like for other subgroups (in fact more so, since students at a particular school are probably drawn more uniformly from the general population than e.g. prisoners or members of a profession).

            It sounds like you’re claiming that factors other than IQ might affect achievement — we don’t hold with that sort of talk round here! More seriously, while other factors can be relevant, they would have to be enormously important to overcome the effect of IQ. Let’s put some numbers on your example. Suppose the student in question is 95th percentile at a school with a median IQ of 90 (so that they they have an IQ of roughly 115). Then we move them to a school with a median IQ of 115. For them to become one of the worst performing students in the new school, they’d have to slack off enough to put them on par with students with study-habits-adjusted IQs of 90. For comparison, 90 is the around the average IQ of US state prisoners (lower than that of any of the professions listed here), whereas 115 is around the average IQ of college professors.

          • christhenottopher says:


            Actually that level of effect might really happen. Take this study for instance that shows conscientiousness explaining five times as much of the variance in GPA as intelligence. So yeah those study habits could shift a top student from a school not encouraging good studying to the bottom at a school that does emphasize that.

          • rlms says:

            Does that mean you would rather have an IQ of 100 and be 1 s.d. above average in conscientiousness than be average in conscientiousness and have an IQ of 160? That seems completely ridiculous. I think either that conclusion doesn’t mean that, or the study is wrong, or both. From skimming it, the they say that previous studies found correlations of around 0.24 between academic success and conscientiousness, and 0.4 between it and intelligence. But their results are the opposite way round (0.47 and 0.23) which suggests something weird went on.

          • Doesntliketocomment says:

            Once again you are assuming that the IQ curve is going to have a normal curve, when some are specifically selecting students in ways that are going prevent that. Take the Thomas Jefferson School of Science and Technology a Northern VA magnet school, as an example. Since they are imposing a screening process, their IQ distribution will cut of sharply on the lower end. Someone performing at a 90 IQ adjusted level simply wouldn’t be able to get in.

          • christhenottopher says:


            Yeah on further looking into this that effect size is almost certainly wrong. Figures that such an eye catching result would be the first thing to pop up in google.

            But the idea of conscientiousness being a very strong factor in academic performance still seems to have a good amount of academic support. Take this 2009 meta analysis that found that for secondary and tertiary education, conscientiousness had an approximately equal impact on academic performance as intelligence (though it was only about half as big an effect in primary education). When taking into account the reports of parents rather than self-reports of conscientiousness, the relationship between conscientiousness and grades gets even stronger. Five times greater than intelligence, yeah that’s overkill. But about equal or possibly stronger correlation than intelligence? That still seems like a decently solid conclusion.

            So if we take a student who has been put under no conscientiousness pressure and is therefore very low on that measure, but has very high intelligence for their starting school, then put them in a school where they are average intelligence but way below average conscientiousness, very worst grades might be an exaggeration, but they certainly would be far below middle of the pack.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Does that mean you would rather have an IQ of 100 and be 1 s.d. above average in conscientiousness than be average in conscientiousness and have an IQ of 160?

            No, the claim was that the variance explained (R²) was 5x, but for the kind of claim you’re making you’d want the correlation coefficient (R).
            Basically, you should always use R and the main reason people use R² is to make numbers appear larger or smaller.

          • Yosarian2 says:

            I think IQ is the wrong thing to be looking at. I’ve taught in a lot of different schools, and if you took the someone from the top 5% of 10th grade students from a poor school and dropped him in the same class an upper middle class public school, he’s likely be a C- to D student at best, if he could pass at all. Not because he’s any less intelligent, he’s not, but the quality of education is so much better, and the demands on the average student in a really good school are so much higher then what he’s used to. The other students would be years ahead of him in math (even though on paper both were taking Algebra II, an Algebra II class in one school is not the same as another) and would be used to doing much more challenging kinds of writing assignments in English.

          • albatross11 says:


            Yeah, you can definitely have a hard transition even if you’re capable of the work. Part of that is actual knowledge, but another part is the relevant study habits. If you are used to being the smart kid who barely needs to study in your mediocre school, and then you move to a really good (advanced, fast-moving) school, you’re going to have to learn new study and organizational habits to keep up.

          • quanta413 says:

            I think there are probably wicked ceiling effects kicking in for how much effect IQ could plausibly have at most U.S. high schools and below. Like, is 130 much more of an advantage than 115 for most classes? Maybe some math I guess.

            On the other hand, choose not to show up much, and you’re in trouble no matter what.

            I believe factors like this could easily skew linear regressions to favor conscientiousness more than expected.

          • Enkidum says:

            “Basically, you should always use R and the main reason people use R² is to make numbers appear larger or smaller.”

            Sorry, what? Don’t people use R^2 because constant increases in it are more easily interpretable? And R is used because it is always higher than R^2 and thus looks bigger? E.g. a correlation of 0.24 as given by rlms sounds like it’s impressive, a full quarter, but it’s actually only 6% of variance. Very puzzled by what you’re saying.

          • Douglas Knight says:

            Don’t people use R^2 because constant increases in it are more easily interpretable?

            What do you mean by “constant increases”?
            What is your interpretation?

            That the only interpretation offered was on this thread was an interpretation of R suggests that it’s easier to interpret.

            Sure, you could hypothesize that people use R when they want numbers to be bigger and R² when they want numbers to be smaller, but this abstract used R² because it made the number bigger.

        • Enkidum says:


          I’m still very confused. What number does r^2 make bigger in Kappe & van der Flier’s abstract? The only numbers in that abstract are proportion of variance explained, which is to say r^2.

          They could have used the r-value of .57 instead of the r^2 of .33, but there is no straightforward interpretation of r like there is of r^2.

          What I mean by constant increases being interpretable in the case of r^2 is simply that the difference between, say, r^2 = 0.5 and 0.6 is the same as the difference between r^2 = 0.2 and 0.3. In each case, the second number explains ten percent more variance than the first. There is no such interpretation possible for r – all you can conclude is that higher r = more correlated, but to figure out what that actually means you need to square it, surely?

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      As others have said, a HS diploma is an indicator that you aren’t in the bottom 20% of workers.

      The bottom 20% of workers are horribly stigmatized by this, and so there is effort to push as many of them as possible over the hump and into graduation. Then only 10% of workers are left, but the stigma for them is even more horrible, so we’d better put in even more effort to get them to graduate.

      Then we repeat the same thing for college diplomas.

      The people treated most cruelly by this whole process are the people at the bottom, but we’re told we can’t stop it because it would hurt the people at the bottom.

      Over decades of thinking about this, I really think we need Scott’s recommendation to ban employers from checking your educational history. We’ll have the same end results overall, just without putting everyone (especially the lower-class) through a meat grinder.

      • chosh says:

        Is there a name for the general principle that the victims of most regulations are the people those regulations purportedly help? Seems like that’s a general concept which should have a name

      • Doesntliketocomment says:

        Over decades of thinking about this, I really think we need Scott’s recommendation to ban employers from checking your educational history.

        That would be great. Except employers would still need to figure out some way to evaluate the work habits and aptitudes of potential employees. Since we have no data for people entering the workforce, we are left with a few choices:
        Outright nepotism, bottom-tier McJobs that don’t really do much to verify anything except a pulse, or a new, third way.

        In this third way, “training companies” are created that have no real function, their only purpose is to give their “employees” work-like conditions and evaluate their performance. Those who perform well are “promoted”. After a few years, you leave your training company, and can then advertise your rank you achieved to potential employers. Now we wouldn’t want these “training companies” funded by the people working at them, that would be a conflict of interest, so we need to pay for it publicly. They are benefiting everyone, after all.

        Congratulations! We have re-invented high school.

        • chosh says:

          Or a fourth way: companies spring up in competition to those “training companies” to provide the function of sorting potential workers. They innovate and find ways to profile workers which take less than four years and are potentially more reliable. One proto-example of this is Triplebyte, but I hope this evolves more in the future, and spreads to more industries.

        • Edward Scizorhands says:

          The idea is that the employers could just do some kind of job-competency test.

          I realize that the lower-classes will be hurt by anything that resembles an IQ test, but they are hurt much more by what we currently have, which produces roughly the same results except with a lot more time, money, and humiliation.

          • Michael_druggan says:

            The problem is that a high school diploma isn’t about intelligence or knowledge. Unless someone is really incredibly stupid they are smart enough to scrape by in high school. Instead what it demonstrates is a willingness to show up do what you’re told and not cause too much trouble. This is something that is very valuable in a worker but very hard to test for in a timely manner.

        • christhenottopher says:

          That low tier jobs thing has traditionally been called apprenticeships. And they work (while focusing on knowledge the students actually remember rather than trivia forgotten 10 seconds after the test ends). And companies still do this often with temp jobs (that’s how I got my current job, started as a temp, moved on to a permanent role that was more important). Something along the line of formalized schooling for individuals outside of subsistence agriculture to prove your a capable potential employer has been done in various societies before the modern world at times. The Romans did in during the imperial period for the upper classes (and Roman literary talent seems to have been lower than previous less schooled periods, also everyone hated the schools just like today!), and the Chinese for their bureaucrats (though to my knowledge the only employer who cared about that was the Imperial government), but most societies including most historical urban ones seemed to naturally prefer apprentice or nepotism models.

    • Doesntliketocomment says:

      I think a large part of it is that the jobs only require high-school education tend to be in the local area, so the local employers are familiar with the standards. If you are going to college, then you will need test results to back up your diploma, and I would imagine college admission officials have information about high school rankings to determine what your degree is worth.

      It’s also more of the case that the a HS degree is just seen as a given – if you don’t have one, even if you have an equivalent certification (see the GED discussion elsewhere in the comments) employers just assume the worst.

    • proyas says:

      Just wait until you learn about the American practice of “social promotion.”


      My father was (briefly) a public school teacher in a high-performing school district in the U.S. Even in the best public schools in that district, social promotion was quietly happening, and students who–no joke–could only read and do math at an elementary school level were being given high school diplomas. He said partly this happened out of concern that, without it, men in their early 20s would be mixing with 14-year-old girls inside the schools.

    • Alexander Turok says:

      Using the SATs or something like it for graduation would get shot down due to disparate impact. I think the main function of a high school diploma is a signal of conformity. Thus, it doesn’t matter much what the standards are; simply that they exist and the graduates jumped through them is enough.

  18. Anon. says:

    What are all these students doing that’s causing them to miss so many classes?

    • johan_larson says:

      I would guess some combination of working and caring for younger siblings (or infirm elders.) A lot of poor parents really struggle to stitch together work and childcare. If mom is told to show up for an odd shift and saying no isn’t an option, the 14-year-old might just have to stay home with the 5-year-old.

      • Wency says:

        Wow, that’s an optimistic view of teenagers (and the sort of teenagers that fail at school, no less).

        I don’t think there are many high schoolers who work jobs *during school hours*. In fact, labor participation for young people has been on a pretty steady downward curve. It seems a lot fewer high schoolers even work summer jobs compared to the past.

        I’m pretty sure the real-world answer is they’re doing something more fun than going to class.

        • Education Hero says:

          I’m pretty sure the real-world answer is they’re doing something more fun than going to class.

          Moreover, the more fun alternatives to school typically involve elevated risks of serious personal and/or legal trouble.

        • Randy M says:

          I’m certain you could find a large number of students who regularly miss school for altruistic reasons. But I really doubt it approaches a majority.

          • johan_larson says:

            I wonder where one could get good data on this?

            I have no personal experience dealing with marginal students. But one of the points Suburb Dad (a community college instructor turned administrator) makes repeatedly is that people on the margins live fragile lives and little bumps that middle class people barely notice can become huge disruptions. An untimely illness or bout of car trouble won’t cause big problems for someone with spare money in the bank and a secure job, but for someone with neither, it can really wreck things. It wouldn’t be surprising if the same held true for their children in high school.

          • Randy M says:

            When I taught HS in long beach, I had the same subject first and second period. The first period had a dramatically lower attendance rate.
            That doesn’t really answer the question; maybe they were watching their baby brother until the nanny arrived, or maybe they were too tired from staying up all night partying.
            Attendance is only part of it, though. There were some students who I gave up trying to convince to take out a pencil after a couple months of trying. One student who was fairly nice but had no concept of single digit division. And a healthy majority who had zero interest in the subject matter. I don’t remember if at the time I believed that “physical science” would in some way impact their lives, but few if any of them did.

            Pro-tip to new teachers–If on setting up your classroom, you notice the chairs have tennis balls on the feet to keep them from wobbling, either remove them, or never turn your back on the class.

          • christianschwalbach says:

            I would believe this is one of the factors that varies widely per district. I wonder also, that in Cities like DC, with high poverty rates, that kids would value the stability of being at school , but also having to defer to family needs? I agree with the below commenter of the value of looking at absences by period….or even day of the week.

        • The Nybbler says:

          Some of these kids are likely in the informal economy, working for the local pharmaceutical distributor, fire insurance group, or extreme discounters. These wouldn’t show up in the labor participation rate.

        • Deiseach says:

          Wow, that’s an optimistic view of teenagers (and the sort of teenagers that fail at school, no less)

          I agree it’s more likely the kids are on the hop, but it does happen: when I was fourteen, I was pulled out of school for a fortnight to look after younger siblings when my mother had to leave for a family funeral (my father’s job meant a gap between when school finished and when he’d get home, and somebody had to be at home so that was me).

          • Mary says:

            But that sort of thing can be excused.

            And a school system looking for excuses is bound to excuse it.

          • Garrett says:

            Doesn’t this show that she valued going to the funeral more than she valued you getting 2 weeks worth of education?

          • John Schilling says:

            I should hope so. Not going to the funeral, beyond any personal psychological cost, would have greatly strained or outright severed social ties with an extended family whose ongoing support was almost certainly far more valuable than two weeks’ worth of generic public high school education.

            And I’m guessing there’s a strong overlap between the schools whose education is of real value, and those which can and will work around a two-week absence for family emergencies.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      My extended family has had a lot of trouble with high school aged kids not showing up to class.

      It’s because being in a classroom sucks.

    • maintain says:

      Well, I imagine they’re spending the time doing the same things they do on evenings and weekends.

  19. mbd0002 says:

    One thing you are assuming with your argument is that the test scores represent the truth. I would not assume that. They were fraudulently graduating students, why not assume fraud with the test scores. It would have looked suspicious with test scores of 180 and a graduation rate of 73%.

    • static says:

      The NAEP test scores are independently managed, and not part of their job performance targets like graduation rates were.

  20. Jaskologist says:

    his seems to refute hypotheses 1 and 2 – that DC just has a terrible school system, or just has an unusually disadvantaged population. Its white students do very well. Its black students do poorly but not too much worse than they would in other states.

    Are most of the white students actually in the same school system as the black ones? My impression is that all of the bigwigs in DC send their kids to private school, and the graduation rate numbers are for government schools.

    • BBA says:

      I would guess that the number of white students in DCPS has increased recently, because real estate costs have gotten so absurd that private school tuition is a substantial burden even for upper-middle-class families. That, and (to grossly extrapolate from a Twitter thread involving Matt Yglesias, who’s sending his son to DCPS) the meme that putting your kids in private school is “an act of structural racism” has started to take off, especially within the DC intelligentsia.

      The real bigwigs live in the suburbs, of course.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      The test scores Scott linked to, 8th grade NAEP, really are only public schools. 12th grade NAEP includes private schools, but doesn’t cover (or at least report) every state.

  21. Freddie deBoer says:

    Campbell’s Law

    • Urstoff says:

      Is that a variant of Goodhart’s Law, or are they conceptually distinct?

      • Edward Scizorhands says:

        I never distinguish between Campbell’s Law, Goodhart’s Law, and the Lucas Critique. They are technically different but the lesson is the same.

  22. static says:

    The amazing thing to me is that they are largely failing due to unexcused absences.

    I think that does point a little to the signalling difference between the GED and the diploma- can you show up every day?

    That said, DC is planning to add an exam requirement for graduation. It would be better if they made that an alternative to attendance.

    • Education Hero says:

      That said, DC is planning to add an exam requirement for graduation. It would be better if they made that an alternative to attendance.

      Why would it be better to remove signaling of attendance?

      • arlie says:

        As a student, I always took attendance requirements as a sign of a bullshit class. And for that matter as a sign of a bullshit school. It was certainly notable that the lower tier the university, the more likely attendance mattered to academic success, in the small sample available to me at the time.

        But of course I had no idea that the real purpose of school was to teach and measure the ability to punch a time clock, not to mention ability to accommodate bullshit requirements without making too much fuss. I was in that small group of academic track kids likely to wind up as some kind of professional, if they didn’t wind up as tenured professors. (This is before the rise in non-tenured sessional faculty.) For my group, ability to manage independently was much more valuable than ability to punch a time clock. (Dealing with BS was unfortunately required in either case.) Also, given the vagaries of the US educational system, I wound up in college with lots of members of the owning class, destined for lives as executives, and/or for doing whatever they wanted. Ability to punch a time clock was not a useful skill for them; they didn’t even need the same grade of BS tolerance as anyone needing to work for a living 😉

        • Deiseach says:

          If you’re smart enough, getting your education elsewhere (e.g. parents who taught you to read, books at home, enriching activities, private tuition) and can make up the work elsewhere so you breeze through the set exams, then you can get away with skipping classes.

          Kids who aren’t that bright or who are but are disinterested and both sets not getting extra help elsewhere (not reading their way through the library because they’re interested in maths, history, etc.) will just sink further and further behind, the more time out of school they accumulate. Even if we say “Okay, realistically you only need 50% of the time you’re supposed to be in class, the rest of it is just clock-punching”, that still means that kids who only show up for 25%-30% are missing out.

        • Garrett says:

          Funny story. As a part of my engineering degree at a bottom-tier school, there was only one pass/fail class. It was scored based on attendance only. It was the ethics and professional practice course. It was taught by a lawyer. I thought it was going to bullshit. He had my attention when the opening sentence of his first lecture started with “On my first crane collapse case …”

      • static says:

        Why would it be better to remove signaling of attendance?

        It is not the purpose of education, and, for many students, a waste of their time. If we had a true measure of skill and capability, a significant number of students would be able to meet it by age 12. Instead, we get a requirement for four years of English and four years of History. Four years of sitting in a chair is valued over learning English or History.

    • laughingagave says:

      That said, DC is planning to add an exam requirement for graduation. It would be better if they made that an alternative to attendance.

      Only if it were a reasonably hard exam, with the option of graduation through attendance as well. It seems legitimate for there to be an attendance option for students who expect to get, for instance, retail jobs, where showing up and not offending anyone are the main requirements.

  23. zzzzort says:

    What’s the optimal high school graduation rate? Obviously the requirements for a high school diploma are determined by state governments and school administrations, and their value for signalling is determined by what everyone knows about high school graduates (diplomas are socially constructed, if you will). So, the policy goal should obviously be to educate the population as well as possible, but where should the cut off for a HS diploma be?

    One goal of having a diploma is as an incentive to receive education. Students know there is a high premium to having a diploma, so they’ll stay in school longer and receive more education. Similarly, they will take required courses that might teach them more/more useful things then non-required fluff courses. Here, the balance would be between setting high standards that people cannot/will not meet and setting low standards that fail to utilize abilities of more academic students. This will be suplememented by other incentives (honors, a high GPA, college admissions). As a diploma is more or less the minimum academic certificate in the US it would make sense to have standards as low as possible to motivate the most marginal students, essentially getting as many people as possible to show up most of the time for 3 or 4 years and learn whatever they can. However, this could be expecting too much rationality, and maybe too many people will do the minimum to get an academic certificate and stop there, even if they have the ability and incentives to go further. This motivation assumes real social capital from education and ignores signalling.

    Another goal is signalling, especially to employers and colleges, about the quality of the students. The most information will be gained from having a graduation rate of 50% (though if the distribution of worker skill isn’t normal this could be a bit more complicated). Again, though, if other signals are available at higher skill levels then that would militate towards a higher optimal graduation rate.

    Do graduation requirements in the US makes sense? I seem to hear a lot about raising standards as being synonymous with increasing the quality of education, but would it be better for DC to just set the standards lower and get the graduation rate up to the 70’s or 80’s?

  24. theory says:

    Same in NYC. I know many teachers in the NYC public schools and they all said the same thing: they were under enormous pressure to graduate everybody. Nothing obvious or blatant, but if you were failing a kid the administration would suddenly take a direct interest. Did you do everything you could? Did you document everything? Could you have reached out more to the parents? Isn’t he/she a good kid? Etc. etc. No such scrutiny was applied to passing students.

    And through those isolated demands for rigor, teachers rapidly learned that you could engage in draining, exhausting fights with your boss, jeopardizing your job, or you could just do as they ask and make everybody happy.

    • Garrett says:

      There’s an inherent problem here:

      Are students failing because they are crappy students? Or are students failing because the teachers are crappy? At my (at the time highly-regarded locally) high school, my CompSci teacher just refused to show up for class on a regular basis. Granted, this was when we were juniors and seniors, and we had projects to work on, so it wasn’t the biggest problem. But he repeatedly didn’t show up. So crappy teachers exist. And they should be hounded to do a better job.

      OTOH, there are also cases of students who are just unwilling to at least show up on time and behave reasonably well. And if they aren’t willing to do the work, it’s unreasonable to expect teachers to have any meaningful impact on them.

  25. David Speyer says:

    Are the standards in DC comparable to Alabama and Mississippi? When NCLB was coming out, I remember that states were allowed to set their own standards, and the rumor was that Southern states set their standards abysmally low, while Northern states set them high and cheated. If that’s right, the other members of the lowest performing tier may not need to cheat.

    • Douglas Knight says:

      NCLB was not about graduation standards. A state could set NCLB standards low to satisfy the feds and set graduation standards separately to achieve whatever substantive goals it wanted.

      The scatterplot suggests that southern states have relatively low graduation standards, but the effect is small.

  26. albatross11 says:

    Goodhart’s Law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

    Suppose you find some metric to judge quality of schools. As long as it’s just something noticed by academics, it can remain useful. But when it becomes something that schools or teachers are judged by, they’ll try to game it. (Some metrics are harder to game than others, so Goodhart’s Law isn’t 100% correct, but it’s a pretty good guide to reality.)

    Graduation rate is a huge metric people report and care about and judge the school system by. And it’s pretty easy for the school to increase their graduation rate, so it’s pretty easy to see why it gets gamed.

    Thinking about this more, I suspect there’s some kind of diminishing returns thing going on. When you’re trying to raise, say, the percentage of your kids who go to college, or get above the 50th %ile on their SAT, or whatever, you’ve broadly got two choices:

    a. Try to improve the underlying thing that the metric is trying to measure.
    b. Try to improve your score in ways that don’t do much w.r.t. the thing the metric is trying to measure.

    Suppose you have genuinely good intentions. So you start out focusing all your efforts on (a)–you genuinely improve the education you provide. And this works for awhile, but eventually, you’ve done as much in that direction as you know how to do, and you score on the metric plateaus.

    At this point, if you’re being judged by a demand to increase that score further, you have no choice but to move to (b). You turn your classroom into a giant test-prep operation, you find excuses to keep the dumb kids away from the tests, you fudge the graduation requirements so your numbers look better, you help the kids a bit with the tests, etc.

    There’s also a race-to-the-bottom thing going on–if you are judged against the performance of others who are wildly gaming their metrics, you’d better do the same thing or you’ll get creamed.

  27. LepidopteristBB says:

    At what point can we be politically incorrect, and state that not all cultures have the same level of valuation of education?

    You won’t be able to fix achievement rates in any demographic, until the people *themselves* want to improve for intrinsic reasons.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      That was Scott’s theory #2, although said in a way that won’t get him burnt at the stake.

      Just because people aren’t screaming “ELEPHANT” at the top of their lungs doesn’t mean they haven’t noticed and mentioned it sitting right in the room.

    • Joshua Hedlund says:

      At what point? After you’ve genuinely tried to understand what it’s like to grow up in a poor environment so you can differentiate between simply not “wanting” to improve and simply having too much baseline stress crowding your mental processing units to leave room for long-term thinking (ex. Kids that live near constant shootings are more worried about they or their loved ones getting shot than concentrating on learning the parts of speech – see Patrick Sharkey’s book Uneasy Peace, or maybe some parents would deeply love their kids to get better education but they’re panicking to find places to stay every time a crisis leads to them getting evicted again – see Matthew Desmond’s book Evicted)

      • Mark V Anderson says:

        Yeah I hear this a lot, but I am very skeptical. Everyone’s got various stress in their life; is it really true that most of the poor are so stressed that it is almost impossible to get good grades? It certainly doesn’t match my impression of the poor students I dealt with as a kid or that I see with my kids. It mostly seemed to me that goof-offs acted that way because they liked to goof off, not that life was tough at home. I suspect there is a small minority of the poor that have to work extraordinarily hard because life events keep getting in the way. I suspect a much larger group don’t do well because they just aren’t very smart, or are hyperactive, or other such personal issues. Those factors have nothing to do with being poor, although exist a lot more in poor kids.

        Is there any objective evidence on this? Maybe not, and we’ll just continue to spout our own prejudices, but I’d like to know the truth if possible.

        • albatross11 says:

          I’m in the middle of raising three bright, generally motivated kids, and I’m consistently amazed by how much work I have to put into reminding them to work on their homework when it’s not due tomorrow, and helping them learn to plan out their time on large projects, and making it clear they’d better bring home good grades, and helping them when they get confused about something, and so on.

          I’m not denying that there are differences in interest, motivation, intelligence, etc. I’m just saying that it’s 100% plausible to me that parents’ expectations, and willingness to nag/browbeat/tutor, and ability to help out with academic subjects and skills all have a big impact.

          I’m sure hard situations at home make things harder for kids in school, too, but I don’t have a lot of personal experience with this. Though one part of the middle-class values I grew up with is that a part of your job as a parent is to make a stable, safe place for your kids to grow up, and that it’s especially not okay to dump on your kids in ways that messes up their education or future.

        • christianschwalbach says:

          To be bluntly honest, I think you are underestimating how the level of stress in low-income/precarious house holds affects one’s ability to concentrate on the abstraction (from basic survival needs) that is school. Not only is it merely a time issue, but constant stress wreaks havoc on executive , higher order function, and especially motivation. a kid who lives in a crime ridden neighborhood, curious and intelligent as they may be , is going to be quite cynical of the “value” of many aspects of standard High School learning

          • keranih says:

            1) I think you might be overestimating the amount of stress in low income households that is a)present and 2)due to the poverty of the household.

            2) I think you might be over stressing cynicism of “hood” kids when the cynicism of all kids is really high for that period.

        • Joshua Hedlund says:

          [Epistemological status: highly uncertain]

          I agree there’s probably some of both (to the extent that we’re simplifying the opposing views into binary independent discrete qualities for the sake of discussion), and I am woefully inadequate to judge the relative proportions. The more I learn the more I feel that the impacts of stress, etc, are undercounted by those who have never experienced it, but of course it’s possible to overcount it as well.

          (Note that these ideas are not simply limited to life being “tough at home” but include externals like violence threats that can affect someone in a rough neighborhood with a relatively stable home life, though of course there will be variance and outliers. There could be many reasons someone “likes to goof off” that are not immediately recognizable from the outside. One way to potentially test “genetic” factors would be to compare outcomes of foster kids between different scenarios. I feel like “culture” is tougher to quantify and is often trotted out as a lazy explanation without appreciating that aspects that seem irrational from the outside may have originally rationally developed from external incentives and conditions, or that aspects can also change rapidly in response to changing external conditions and incentives.)

          • albatross11 says:

            One way to untangle this: Is there literature on how personal shocks/stress affect test scores? My intuition would be that someone with a lot of chaos or stress in their home life would show depressed test scores. (One obvious mechanism is sleep deprivation–if your home life is chaotic in ways that leave you routinely getting 4 hours of sleep a night, that’s surely going to affect your performance on an IQ test.)

            Anecdotally, it’s easy to see cases where someone’s job performance falls apart because, say, they’re going through an extremely messy divorce. It wouldn’t be a surprise at all to see similar stuff happen in school.

            Somewhere, there is surely a big literature on this….

  28. bizzolt says:

    DC Public Schools HS teacher here (although I’m not returning next year, as is the case with many of my colleagues). As noted, one of the biggest factors in the graduation rates is the unexcused absences–if you look at the results of our external audit and investigation here, you see that for many schools, a significant number of our seniors “Passed Despite Excessive Absences in Regular Instruction Courses Required for Graduation”–over 40% of 2017 graduates at my high school, for example.

    So the attendance policy is being strictly enforced now, and you can see how from that alone, a ~30% drop in expected graduates is possible. Some more details about strictly enforcing the attendance policy though:

    1: DCPS has what’s called the ’80 20′ rule: A student that is absent for at least 20% of their classes is considered absent for the whole day.
    2: Most schools have 5 periods, so an absence in one class would be considered an absence for the whole day.
    3: If you have 10 or more unexcused absences in a class, you automatically get an F for the term.
    4: If you are over 15 minutes late for a class, that is considered an unexcused absence.
    5: A majority of these absences are in first period.
    6: A majority of students in my school and many others live in single parent households.
    7: These students are typically responsible for making sure their younger siblings get to school, if they have any.
    8: Elementary and middle schools in my neighborhood start at the exact same time as high school.
    9: Their doors do not open until 5 to 10 minutes before the starting bell, presumably for safety reasons.
    10: Refer to point 4.

    There’s many other problems at DCPS to be sure, but this set of circumstances alone is causing the largest increase in failing grades and graduation ineligibility at my high school, and basically every other 90+% black school in the district. You could see how this accounts for quite a bit of the difference between white and black graduation rates as well. There’s a reason why across the board, DCPS schools were not strictly enforcing this policy in previous years.

    • Evan Þ says:

      Has there been any talk about changing that policy? From what you say, it sounds like it’s an obvious way to dramatically increase graduation rates.

      • bizzolt says:

        Well, graduation rates were higher up until this year largely because schools were choosing to selectively enforce the policy. During the investigation I attended a few district council hearings where changing the ’80 20′ rule and staggering school start times were brought up, but since right now there is enormous pressure on the district (my boss, boss’s boss, and boss’s boss’s boss have all resigned), the on the books policy is being strictly enforced, as is.

        DCPS will have to find some balance after this academic year, since right now it is basically like Scott’s 3rd hypothesis–in 2017-2018, thousands of students who would have graduated in basically any other urban school district will be held back, and a significant number of these students will choose the workforce or other adult activities over redoing senior year for no specific fault of their own except being in DC at the wrong time.

        • outis says:

          Why don’t they just have high school start 30 minutes later than elementary school? I’m trying to think of who would be against that, and why… I guess parents who want to drive their children to high school?

          • Protagoras says:

            Parents who want their kids to do sports or whatever after school, and so don’t want the resulting high school ending 30 minutes later.

    • Edward Scizorhands says:

      Thanks for providing an on-the-ground POV.

      How confident are you that point 7 is capturing a large part of the problem? No one likes getting up early, especially teenagers.

      When I was a kid, our school district was arranged so that the elementary school opened before the middle school which opened before the high school, and in reverse at the end of the day, to allow for the exact “older kids look after younger kids” model. These days schools seem set up more to be easy to run/administrate.

      • bizzolt says:

        Pretty confident, at least with respect to my high school, and the other Title I schools in the district that my friends and colleagues teach at. A few observations supporting this:

        1: About half of my first period is failing due to having 10 or more unexcused absences, but over half of that group (let’s call them group A) hit 10 unexcused absences relatively early in the semester due to lateness, with the remaining proportion (group B) taking a few months to accumulate 10, with more of them not showing up for the entire day, when I look them up in the attendance system. The students in group A largely cite siblings as the reason, and I walk by an elementary school on my morning walk from the metro and have seen several members of group A waiting there with their little brothers and sisters. I’ve seen those same members in the afternoon picking them up.

        2: It’s not perfectly uniform, but more of group A by percentage continues to attend, despite showing up late relatively often, while more of group B by percentage stopped attending altogether after hitting 10 unexcused absences, knowing they have an F no matter what.

        3: I got access to our school’s historical data as part of a statistical analysis I did on our college acceptance rates in January, and while I checked on several things, like if the class of 2017’s grades differed significantly from what their SAT scores would predict, I was also curious about this sibling attendance hypothesis. Of the students who went from truant in 2016 (defined by DCPS as having 10 or more unexcused absences) to non-truant in 2017, several of them now had siblings in 9th grade with them, which would at least point in the direction of those students finding it easier to make it to school on time.

        I have only taught 9th and 10th graders, so I’m not as connected to the graduation rate problem, but my colleagues teaching upperclassmen tell me similar things. There are also issues with commutes, where students take multiple buses with unreliable schedules, for example, and because DCPS has only canceled two days due to weather while neighboring Maryland and Virginia school districts have canceled over five, I am sure that is pushing some students over the 10 unexcused absence threshold as well.

        To be sure, I have some lazy students (plus research shows that a later start time would be better anyway for teenagers because of sleep phase delay or whatever), but I don’t think it’s significantly more than other school districts–I think that these policies are disproportionately affecting DC students, and more specifically those in Title I schools with more poverty. The staggered start time thing seems like a no-brainer if we want to give students with more home responsibilities some assistance, but I haven’t heard any arguments against it yet so not sure what the reasoning is. Might be union negotiations related so elementary/middle school staff don’t have to work longer hours than high school, or something like that.

        • gbdub says:

          Wouldn’t making the start time later / end time early enough to make a difference end up cutting out an awful lot of the high school day?

          “9: Their doors do not open until 5 to 10 minutes before the starting bell, presumably for safety reasons.”

          That sounds like the real problem. Seems like just having enough staff on hand to supervise the elementary / middle school kids long enough for their older siblings to get to/from school after dropping them off would be an easier solution.

        • Steve Sailer says:

          Thanks for writing from inside DC schools.

          A general observation I have is that public school systems tend to be very poor at modeling the effects of proposed rule changes ahead of time. Public school systems seldom seem to have a lot of talented moneyballer statistical analysts working for them who can explain to the bigshots, OK, but if you change policy X to policy Y, that means Z% fewer students will graduate: are you okay with that?

          From reading about the giant Los Angeles Unified School District in the local newspapers, the various leaders are recurrently coming up with pet policy changes, such as requiring graduates to pass more rigorous courses, that have inevitable but apparently wholly unexpected consequences on outcomes like who graduates, which then have to be mitigated by lower level employees such as teachers.

          The concept of having some Nate Silver-type statistically model the likely effect of proposed policies ahead of time seems to have seldom occurred to the various leaders.

          • Steve Sailer says:

            It’s an interesting question why public school systems tend to be naive at understanding the statistical implications of their various brainstorms, while colleges tend to be pretty machiavellian about how to run, say, admissions.

            My impression is that Harvard set a pretty intelligent course for college admissions across the country by quantitatively studying what works and doesn’t work in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Robert Klitgaard’s 1985 book “Choosing Elites” recounts a lot of Harvard’s findings. Most people who work in college admissions don’t seem particularly sharp, but my impression is that there actually is an Inner Party who do understand things. So you don’t see colleges doing really laughably dumb stuff with their admissions policies all that often. Harvard doesn’t, and everybody else keeps an eye on what Harvard does.

            In contrast, I don’t think many big school districts have much of a clue how to think statistically about things like test scores, so they are always being surprised when their new policies have the opposite effect of what they had assumed.

            Perhaps New York City and a few other huge school districts could create a small but prestigious office of highly educated statistical analysts whose jobs are immune to being fired for political reasons who could be charged with doing moneyball analysis of proposed policies. If NYC took the lead in mandating statistically vetting the likely impact of new policies, it could do the whole country some good over the following generation.

    • Doesntliketocomment says:

      Thank you for this comment. I find it shocking that none of these factors were quantified, or even mentioned in the audit.

    • grendelkhan says:

      Thank you for sharing this–this sounds like some incredibly low-hanging fruit, some horribly bad incentives.

      Like, I’m sure there are other problems with the school system, but if you wanted to design something to encourage truancy, you’d come up with a set of rules like that. It’s positively bizarre.

  29. pjiq says:

    I think standardized tests (offered through an external agency rather than the individual school) are certainly part of the solution, but should not be overestimated either. I love standardized tests (primarily because I’m good at them) but I don’t love school (primarily because I’m not great at juggling deadlines, being organized, or sucking up). But potential employers probably are looking for someone who can juggle deadlines, be organized etc. more than they’re looking for someone whose short term memory allows him to do very well on multiple choice exams.

    A teacher’s job certainly involves teaching, but it also consists of a significant amount of disciplinary and management duties that shouldn’t be underestimated. Elementary schools in a certain sense are an incredibly valuable source of publicly funded child care, with a 30 to 1 adult to child ratio that no babysitter could realistically handle. Only measuring that teacher’s work by their students’ scores ignores all of these other duties, which are an enormous part of their jobs and of the value they provide to society.

    I am not saying that standardized tests should not be used (I believe they definitely should be) but that they should be used to measure maybe 35% of a teacher’s performance, with the other 65% measured by other factors.

    Anyways, those are my thoughts. Excellent article Scott.

  30. proyas says:

    I was friends with a guy who briefly worked as a teacher at a public high school in central DC (I’m 80% sure it was Cardozo High). He had an education background thanks to spending several years working as a youth camp counselor and as an after-school program counselor, and that was sufficient to qualify him for DCPS’ abbreviated teacher training program (such a thing existed in 2009 when he did it; I’m unsure if it is still around). During the training program, I remember him speaking about his enthusiasm for the teaching skills he was learning and about his eagerness to put them to use (in retrospect, I think some of this was a nervous attempt to convince himself the job wouldn’t be bad). After a break of several months, we spoke again, and he was almost totally disillusioned with the job and was already thinking of quitting. This is what I remember him saying:

    1) On the first day of classes, there was no orientation for new teachers, no brief meeting where the Principal shook his hand and said “Welcome Aboard,” nothing. He had to go to the front office and ask a secretary what classroom was his and walk there by himself.

    2) Unexcused absences were chronic and undermined his ability to teach anything. At the start of each of his classes, he had a written roster of students, and he had to check off which students were there. For any class, typically 20-30% of students would be missing, without explanation (This is a very important point to remember whenever anyone tries to blame DCPS’ poor outcomes on large class sizes–on paper, each class might have 35 students, but typically, only 23 are actually showing up). Additionally, the 20-30% of students who were absent each class varied from day-to-day, meaning one student didn’t know what was taught on Monday, the one next to him was there Monday but not Tuesday, the third was there the first two days but not Wednesday, etc.

    3) Student misbehavior was atrocious. For example, out of the students who showed up to class, it was common for some to walk into the classroom late, again without any explanation and often behaving disruptively. As a rule, whenever a student did that, he was obligated to sign his name on a clipboard for the teacher’s attendance records (there was no punishment for tardiness–late students merely had to write their names down). Some late students would chronically resist doing this, either ignoring him and just going to their desks or yelling curses at him. My friend described an incident where one student–who was physically bigger than he was–yelled out he was a “FAGGOT” when asked to sign the clipboard, provoking laughs from all the other students, before sitting down without signing it. After seeing he could get away with that, the student started calling my friend “FAGGOT” all the time. Other examples of misbehavior included near-constant talking among the students during lessons and fooling around with cell phones.

    4) Teachers received almost no support from the school administration. Had sane rules been followed at this high school, students would have been immediately sent to the office for formal punishment for these sorts of offenses I’ve described. However, under such a policy, the office would have been overwhelmed with misbehaving students and probably some of their enraged parents, so the administration solved the problem by forbidding teachers from sending students to the office for anything other than physical violence in the classroom. My friend had no ability to formally punish the student who liked to call him “FAGGOT” other than to use stern verbal warnings.

    5) Most of the students were unwilling and in some cases unable to learn. During class sessions, the students were clearly disengaged from what he was teaching. Homework completion rates were abysmal. As the end of the academic semester neared, he saw that a huge fraction of them were on track to fail, so he resorted to pitiful cajoling, pizza parties, reward schemes, and deals involving large curves to everyone’s grades if they could only, for once do a little work, and it didn’t work. Some of his students were Latino and understood little or even no English, meaning they learned (almost) nothing, even when they tried. He resorted to seating the students who knew no English next to bilingual Latinos who could translate for them. That was the best he could do. In fairness, he spoke glowingly of some of his students, who actually put in some effort and were surprisingly smart.

    6) At the time my friend was teaching, DCPS was in the grips of some harebrained, faddish teaching philosophy that said students of different academic abilities shouldn’t be put in different course tracks, but rather, should be deliberately put in the same class. This of course caused immediate problems since the curriculum was too hard for the weakest students and too easy for the strongest ones. I think my friend said his training program basically told teachers to “try harder” if any problems arose from the setup.

    I’ll never forget how crestfallen and stressed out he was when he described these things to me. Having never taught in American public schools, I didn’t realize just how bad it was, and the detailed nature of his anecdotes really had an impact on me. I advised him to finish his year at the high school and then to transfer to ANY non-urban school in the area, even if it meant lower pay or a longer commute. We lost touch after that, but I can’t imagine he still works in DCPS.

    • Randy M says:

      I advised him to finish his year at the high school and then to transfer to ANY non-urban school in the area, even if it meant lower pay or a longer commute. We lost touch after that, but I can’t imagine he still works in DCPS.

      Even that can be a minor accomplishment. A class down the hall from me when I taught had half a dozen teachers over the course of the year.

    • Enkidum says:

      Like most good white Gen X liberals, everything I know about inner city schools comes from The Wire. Sounds basically exactly the same.

      • educationrealist says:

        Then everything you know is black multi-generational poverty, which is just one type of inner city schools, and inner city schools are just one type of hi-poverty schools.

        ETA: So, for example, all the schools I’ve worked in are title I, but none of them are in cities. They’re much better schools, much easier to work in, but still a lot tougher than rich suburbs.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      “4) Teachers received almost no support from the school administration. Had sane rules been followed at this high school, students would have been immediately sent to the office for formal punishment for these sorts of offenses I’ve described. However, under such a policy, the office would have been overwhelmed with misbehaving students and probably some of their enraged parents, so the administration solved the problem by forbidding teachers from sending students to the office for anything other than physical violence in the classroom.”

      Private high schools tend to use assistant football coaches as professional disciplinarians. They hire guys with necks wider than their heads to be Assistant Deans of Discipline. So the teacher has backup from fellows who enjoy putting punks in their places.

      Public schools tend to have much less disciplinary support for teachers. Partly this is for budgetary reasons. But unfortunately it’s also because public schools are constantly being accused of discrimination by people who ought to know better, such as the Obama Administration. The Obamaites declared it a national crisis a few years ago that black students were suspended 3x as often as white students, and blamed racist public school teachers.

      So, school system respond by putting roadblocks on kinds of discipline that leave paper trails for the feds to deduce disparate impact from. Teachers are told to handle disciplinary problems themselves and not involve the front office unless it’s a severe problem such as violence against a teacher.

      Not surprisingly, this makes life harder for the kind of nice, sensitive teachers who like to think about how to make The Great Gatsby appealing to today’s youth.

      • Joseftstadter says:

        Private high schools tend to use assistant football coaches as professional disciplinarians.

        Really? For the most part private schools don’t require that much discipline, at least the ones I am familiar with on the East Coast. “Discipline problems” in those schools usually mean “drug abuse” and are usually handled discreetly. Even my public school in a solidly middle class white New Hampshire town didn’t require a professional disciplinarian – we didn’t even have a football team. One of the English teachers, former military, could step in if a kid from the “Smoking Area” got out of line but that was about it.

    • liz says:

      I feel for your friend.
      I had a very similar experience as a new teacher (back in the mid-90s, I was in my early 20s). Except it was Fayetteville, NC, and a Middle School. Most of the students outweighed me…some by about 50 pounds. I replaced a teacher who had a nervous breakdown and walked out during class. I had no teaching experience outside of substitute teaching (science undergraduate degree, I was emergency certified). I didn’t last the rest of the year, it was awful. The students would openly get up during class and taunt me and there was nothing I could do. I’d send one to the office and he or she would come back with a note from the Vice Principle stating I needed to handle this it in my class (where the offending student served no purpose beyond being disruptive).
      I, too, attempted cajoling and “reward” techniques. I tried everything. I was happy when my husband got military orders to South Korea so I had an excuse to quit as we were moving. Never went back to teaching. I’ve thought about those students a lot in the last 20 years. I assume a good portion are in prison. It’s sad.
      FWIW, I wasn’t the only one. Two other first year teachers quit around the same time I did. Another was still employed when I left but she had started taking anti-depressants.

      • Randy M says:

        I’d send one to the office and he or she would come back with a note from the Vice Principle stating I needed to handle this it in my class

        That’s pretty effective at publicly undercutting your authority.

        • liz says:

          That’s pretty effective at publicly undercutting your authority.

          Yep. And the student would return and recite it, typically.
          “See! She can’t even handle her own class.”
          It was awful.

      • proyas says:

        One of my cousins had a nearly identical experience as yours. Right after college, she got a job teaching at a public school in the Atlanta area (I can’t remember the age range, but I think it was younger kids). After a year or perhaps less, she quit thanks to the stressful things we’ve discussed and just decided to be a housewife. Not long after that, she had her first child, which gave her something to do with her days. She never returned to the workforce.

        • liz says:

          I feel for her, too.
          On the bright side, it was a real learning experience.
          (I became an RN, which is a lot better)

  31. educationrealist says:

    I didn’t have time to read all the comments, so forgive me if someone has already pointed this out:

    First, of *course* they are all committing fraud. And DC got burned so now they are on the hook to be accurate.

    Scott is using NAEP scores to determine whether or not the grad rates are reasonable. But the students who are often absent might be tagged for NAEP testing, but they might not. If you are absent on NAEP test day, there’s some kind of effort to get you tested, but it’s not huge. So it’s quite possible that a lot of the absent students are never tested, particularly if they are absent a lot.

    I mean, remember the absentee levels we’re talking about. A kid who skips one day a week is only 20% absent. In DC, 20% of the kids had absentee levels of OVER 50%.

    A larger point: it might seem obvious that kids who show up more have higher scores, but in a really low performing group, the tests and the classes are both so far over the head of the average low achieving student that you could very easily see no difference between a kid who shows up every day but has no skills and a kid who is absent all the time but has no skills.

    If the true value of education is signaling, then the most important thing a school district can do is make sure it’s speaking the same signaling-language as everyone else. Probably somebody should fix the system in general, but that needs to happen on a national level if it’s not going to leave thousands of unfairly-failed children as collateral damage.

    But of course, schools aren’t speaking the same signaling language. By design. That is, an A and an F mean entirely different things in Detroit than, say, Palo Alto.

    So what you really mean is it would suck if you were a kid who skipped a ton of school in DC but got caught in the net, while that same kid in Detroit would get a diploma.

    • gbdub says:

      ” But the students who are often absent might be tagged for NAEP testing, but they might not.”

      It really seems like you need to include “rate of NAEP completion” in the scores. I get the impression that, in addition to the absentee problem, there may be a fair amount of gaming in order to avoid having students certain to fail take the tests in the first place. Schools with unusually low test completion rates would need to have their reported average scores taken with a big grain of salt.

      • educationrealist says:

        There’s a non-trivial effort to avoid gaming. But yeah, Texas did (and some would say does) a big ol game with their special ed students that had (has) artificially inflated their NAEP scores.

        But I don’t think NAEP was built to anticipate the degree of absenteeism that DC and other urban schools engage in. Some kids are gone for months at a time.

      • Steve Sailer says:

        The international PISA test has a problem with students not taking the test. For example, Argentina complained that their terrible scores were do to rounding up a full of 80% of the students who were supposed to take the text while Mexico only lassos something like 63%.

        Vietnam aced the PISA partly due to only having maybe 56% of students take the test. In contrast, America is at around 89%, high-scoring Finland around 97%, and the honest burghers of the Netherlands had 101% of expected students sit the PISA.

    • Steve Sailer says:

      Texas usually does quite well on the NAEP, while demographically similar California does poorly. I’m not sure why. One reason is Texas usually maxes out the number of students who are excused from taking the NAEP for reasons such as being not very bright, while other states don’t seem to have thought of that ploy as much.

      But it could be that Texans really are smarter. Or maybe they just game the NAEP more.

  32. skef says:

    Many observations in these comments — especially the apparently lower status of a GED versus a high school diploma even though the standards for the former are probably higher — make this thread an interesting place to reflect on the likely reception on the part of employers to “retraining”.

    • static says:

      I mentioned elsewhere, the signal of the diploma with attendance standards is “this person is capable of regularly showing up and doing something boring”. Four years of history aren’t that useful to working in a factory.

      • skef says:

        I’m suggesting that the signal of retraining to employers may effectively be something like “the government is hoping to pass this social refuse off as qualified — disregard.” That’s not the same thing, but it’s in the same family.

  33. grrath says:

    Two points:
    1. Here’s an idea. All high school diplomas come stamped with the score report of an average of standardized test grades but as long as you show up to class on time you get one. That way having a diploma still means something but there is enough differentiation on the certificate that employers don’t need to perform a whole bunch of guesswork to determine whether or not the person in front of them is even marginally competent. You can also lower graduate diploma standards to essentially zero if you really wanted to, people are still going to be able to determine what the person is actually capable of intellectually.

    In response to charges that people would just ‘teach to the test’, I think that the much bigger issue there is the insinuation that doing well on a standardized test by any means doesn’t actually reflect learning and capability. If teaching to the test hurts learning, then the test shouldn’t be given at all in the first place. We want teaching to the test and learning to generally align and I don’t understand how we haven’t figured out how to actually insure a standardized test actually reflects grasp of the material.

    For nationalized standardization, we could have multiple companies administer the actual test but only one central authority write the content. Companies can compete over their efficiency of service without possibly compromising the exam. Some licensing exams use that model, where the actual exam is written by a central board and companies are chosen to administer it.

    2. Graduation rates violate pretty much every rule to determine whether or not a measurement instrument is appropriate for use. They aren’t internally consistent, let alone externally valid, barely responsive to actual changes in the school structure, not reliable over the long term etc. I don’t know why any uses them for anything at all other than convenience. Seeing large fluctuations like this in response to random changes while there is still clustering around arbitrary values even in spite of wide variations in underlying characteristics of the various school systems are all suggestive of the fact that pretty much everyone is gaming the system in some way to achieve an ‘acceptable’ value. New regulations are going to put everyone off their game for a while until they find a way to use the new loopholes to push their graduation rates to where they ‘should’ be. DC’s only fault was resorting to fraud when there are more than enough ways to follow the regulation while completely distorting their planned purpose.

  34. P. George Stewart says:

    How about this hypothesis: all the other rates are fraudulently inflated too, and DC’s is the first to be realistic?

  35. MrApophenia says:

    One thing to keep in mind is that DC really is uniquely bad as a school district. A few years back, the Washington Post did a really in depth analysis of why it was so broken. (Sadly, with Google being totally swamped by the current scandal, I was unable to find a link.)

    The conclusion they found was pretty interesting –

    If you go back to the 60s, DC had some of the best urban schools in the country by every metric they had to track things back then. What changed? Well, see, back then DC still didn’t have home rule. They were almost entirely run by the federal government. So the highest elected office the city had was the DC Board of Education.

    In 1971, an ambitious young politician by the name of Marion Barry got elected to the board, and almost immediately began farming out school administration positions as political rewards for his cronies. This practice caught on, and within a matter of years, the whole enterprise basically descended into naked corruption.

    I recall they showed a figure in that article that the DC public school system spends the third most money per student of any district in the country (after NY and Boston); however, the Post also found that in terms of the quantity of money that is actually spent on students, DC was roughly at the level of the most poverty-stricken districts in the poorest Southern, rural school districts.

    Michelle Rhee did not change any of this, Waiting for Superman or no.

    This isn’t meant to argue with the premise of the rest of the article – the idea that everyone else is committing fraud seems quite plausible. But I wouldn’t necessarily reject the idea that DC’s school system really is a special, unique snowflake of terrible practices, either.

    • SEE says:

      I grant that Detroit may have improved over the last twenty years, given it’s spent fifteen of them with home rule suspended and under the control of a state-appointed manager. But if you want stories of cronyism, corruption, and the like . . . well, I doubt DC can manage to stand out as “uniquely bad” compared to the DPS of the 1990s.

  36. grendelkhan says:

    Apropos nothing else, “approaches expectations” is an amazing euphemism for “failing”.

    • Nornagest says:

      We could apply the same type of doublespeak that’s used to describe significance levels here:

      “Suggestive of meeting expectations.”
      “A mild trend towards meeting expectations.”
      “Approaching formal academic expectations.”
      “Barely failed to meet expectations at conventional levels.”
      “Closely approximates academic expectations.”

  37. grendelkhan says:

    I’d add that students don’t arise in a vacuum–they’re influenced by the situations in which they grow up. Kids with what’s essentially PTSD aren’t going to be particularly emotionally stable. Kids who’ve learned not to trust people around them aren’t going to delay gratification.

    Failing neighborhoods, failing communities.

    • onyomi says:

      In other words, failing parents. (The point of my post being to push back against the impulse to shift blame back off individuals and onto some abstract-sounding environmental factor, like a “failing school” or a “failing neighborhood.” That is, I think Atlas’s post applies with equal force to the neighborhoods themselves.)

  38. Mark V Anderson says:

    I think school districts should simply hand out high school diplomas to everyone when they turn 18. The degree never means anything anyway, and all schools and states have a great incentive to give kids diplomas no matter what. So let’s make it honest.

    There have been suggestions in the comments that the point of the diploma is to prove that you can sit in a chair and be bored for four years. But other comments have talked about many kids getting diplomas despite high absenteeism. It is widely variable what will allow a kid to get a diploma. As Scott indicates, the 18 year olds in DC now are simply unfortunate to come of age when DC has decided to pretend the diploma means something.

    If we just gave the degree to everyone, we could worry about real issues.

  39. Michael Cohen says:

    I taught at a charter school in Oakland for a year, and this hypothesis seems pretty reasonable to me. I think the administration at my school was unusually principled in maintaining graduation standards, and even still, on a case-by-case basis, it felt like more of a negotiation between what the student was going to accomplish and what we wanted them to, rather than a consistent set of competencies that needed to be demonstrated.

  40. proyas says:

    The public school system for Prince George’s County, MD–which borders the poorest parts of DC–is embroiled in its own scandal about inflated high school graduation rates, illegal grade fixing, and coverups of large numbers of unexcused student absences.


    • Simon_Jester says:

      As a Prince George’s County teacher, I noted with some triumphal smugness that when the auditors came to *our* school, the worst infraction we were found guilty of was that we’d forgotten to send copies of our seniors’ graduation documentation to the county microfilm archives because we were too busy doing things in a more sane, 21st (or at least reasonably late 20th) century style.

      More generally, I can confirm that the problems discussed (students unable to attend school consistently due to unstable home life, students with unstable psychological issues who would be fine if someone would get them a therapist and some desperately needed meds, plus random juvenile delinquents and ragemonsters we can’t get rid of easily) *are* a problem. They’re nowhere near as overwhelming a problem for us as in DC, and our graduation rates are correspondingly *far* above the DC average, but our school’s population is a ‘catchment basin’ that straddles the boundary between suburban and urban students and families, so we do see it.

      More generally, Prince George’s County covers an area that stretches radially outwards from DC. At the ‘minimum radius’ edge, the county is demographically and economically indistinguishable from DC, and I suspect that the high schools down there are subject to identical pressures. As one moves radially outwards in a more or less easterly direction, one moves out into relatively nicer suburbs, crosses the Beltway, and then moves into nicer-still suburbs, shading out into ‘actually quite decent.’ The furthest corners of the county are actually far enough out to be genuinely rural…

      But yes, while I haven’t actually done a detailed digging into the findings of the report, I strongly suspect the big reason we have a cheating scandal is for the same reason DC does- a few draconian rules that were being widely ignored because they’re draconian, plus a significant proportion of the schools that are close enough to DC to have the same incentive structure and the same problems in full measure.