What Really Matters

Education reform has taken so many paths in recent decades – raising expectations and standards, providing school choice, lengthening the school day or year, rewarding and valuing teachers, instituting high-stakes testing, launching races to the top, and more. One dimension of reform has been focused on school type, prompting a debate as to whether public, private, charter, alternative and virtual do better in boosting educational outcomes for students.

This is an interesting question, and one that, in terms of graduation rates, we set out to examine in the 2016 Building a Grad Nation report. The focus of this year’s report was driven by two key factors. First, the new Every Student Succeeds Act requires states to identify low-performing high schools (graduating 67 percent or less of students) and take action to improve them, and we wanted to lay the groundwork for understanding where and what type these schools are. Second, it is essential that the various pathways young people have available to them are, in reality, providing meaningful educational options, and are not just offering choice for choice’s sake.

What is interesting is that instead of being taken as an examination of low-graduation-rate schools, some took the report as a critique of certain school types. Sadly, this is representative of the education landscape today, where turf wars and ideological polarization reign, and real conversations about what is best for our nation’s young people often take a back seat.

The real question, however, is whether the current debate over school type entirely misses the point. Have we become so entangled in certain school types being better than others that we can no longer see that what matters is not the school type, but the success of the students within them? Does it really matter if students go to a traditional public high school or a charter school if neither provides them the opportunity to engage with and question the world around them? And maybe the most important question of all, can students be expected to do any of these things, regardless of where they are enrolled, if their basic needs are not being met in and out of the classroom?

The fact of the matter is, if we do not lead with these bigger questions, we lose sight of how to address the smaller ones – or determine if they even matter at all. Take school choice, for example. While providing choice to families that lack it may help, it alone does not ensure students are receiving a better education or have access to greater opportunity. And time and again, research has shown that the evidence on school choice is mixed at best, but rather than learning from these results, heels are dug in even deeper.

The present education landscape is littered with debates like these. Yes, they may be issues we need to contend with, but are they serving as a distraction to what is truly important in education today?

We are concerned with high school graduation rates because we know that earning a high school diploma is a critical indicator of lifelong success. We also understand that it matters less what type of school a student attends than what that school offers – specifically, opportunities to develop caring relationships with adults and peers, a safe and welcoming environment, authentic learning experiences, opportunities to engage with the world outside the classroom, and strong support every step of the way. Without these things, little else matters.

As efforts continue to improve education and increase academic performance, high school graduation rates, and higher education attainment for all students, it is imperative that the conversation around how to accomplish these goals becomes more productive. We need to use the data and research available to us to make smart, informed decisions about what is best for young people, and stop using it to gain ground in the battles that have consumed the public education space. This is not about what school type is best – it’s about what is best for students. Our greatest failure will be to lose sight of this fact.