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Learning Curve

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Give grad credit where it's due

Need more evidence teachers earn no respect? Check out the response to news the U.S. high school graduation rate is at its highest point in nearly 40 years:

"Grim economic conditions and the need to be competitive in a crowded job market played a role," according to The Christian Science Monitor.

"Officials say the steady rise of students completing their education is a reflection of the struggling economy and a greater competition for new jobs," according to the Associated Press report.

Brian Williams at NBC Nightly News gave the positive figures a mention, attributing it to the poor economy.

Our own op-ed page gave the economy credit for the improved numbers, in a headline and editorial from Scripps-Howard news service.

Did some students stay in school because they couldn't find a job? Maybe, but anyone who knows much about 16- or 17-year-olds knows that a teen intent on dropping out won't stay in class because of poor job prospects. There's simply no good judgment involved in such a decision.

The days of going from high school to the assembly line – and an attractive paycheck – ended a generation ago. Students at risk of dropping out are just as likely to be attracted by a fast-food job, provided it allows them to sleep past 7 a.m. and avoid homework.

What's truly different is that teachers and administrators have made significant progress in reaching all students. It wasn't a priority for many years, because the students who fell through classroom cracks could get by. That changed long ago and the work to ensure all students were on track from the start began. It's taken a decade and more of changes, with emphasis on early childhood programs and efforts to improve reading instruction. Schools also have changed instructional methods to keep bright students who might have been bored interested in school.

The progress has been slow because it takes at least 13 years for a student to reach graduation. Rates can't be turned around overnight or even in the course of a two- or four-year political term.

But let's give credit where credit is due. If educators weren't doing something right, the nation's graduation rate would still be in the cellar. More teachers are finding ways to help more students connect and stay in school.

In fact, the improvement is even better than it appears. Those 40-year-old rates were based on flawed data that misrepresented school success. Today's numbers are a much better representation of how many students are graduating in four years.

Karen Francisco, editorial page editor for The Journal Gazette, has been an Indiana journalist since 1981. She writes frequently about education for The Journal Gazette opinion pages and here, where she looks at the business, politics and science of learning as it relates to northeast Indiana, the state and the nation. She can be reached at 260-461-8206 or by e-mail at kfrancisco@jg.net.

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