The Hard Bigotry of Unreachable Expectations

When it comes to high school graduation rates, Iowa leads the country. 91% of Iowa students complete their four years of high school and end up with a diploma in hand -- an impressive feat worthy of praise.

Oregon, on the other hand, is ranked 48th nationally. Only 75% of Oregon students earn a high school diploma at the end of their four years in high school.

There is a rising chorus of people in Oregon who argue that these rankings are essentially irrelevant. The massive difference in state-by-state requirements renders any sort of national comparison useless. They make a compelling point, and the facts support them. Oregon requires that each student earns 24 credits to graduate; Iowa, on the other hand, only requires 14 credits. No state requires more credits to graduate than Oregon. Furthermore, Oregon requires more than just credits: students in Oregon also have to demonstrate proficiency in three of nine "essential skills" (reading comprehension, writing, and applied mathematics). That's not all, though -- Oregon also requires students to fulfill three "personalized learning requirements," which they label as Education Plan and Profile, Career Related Experience, and Extended Application. In Oregon, earning a high school diploma is no small task.

While the argument that these state rankings aren't fair are well-reasoned, the consequences of the disparities are very real. Oregon Public Broadcasting interviewed the Director of Iowa's Department of Education to learn about the "strategies" used in Iowa to raise rates. Oregon, on the other hand, is anxiously trying to find solutions, with task forces, committees, and organizations regularly publishing reports, audits, and papers with their own hypotheses on how to "solve" this problem. Most of these solutions focus on important factors inhibiting student learning, especially social factors. Addressing these are critical to improving education outcomes for all students, particularly students from underrepresented and low income communities. 

Missing in this ongoing statewide conversation is a critical analysis of the structural requirements Oregon has imposed to receive a diploma. We have chosen a starkly different path than Iowa, one of high "academic rigor." Michael Gerson, former speechwriter to President George W. Bush, coined the phrase "the soft bigotry of low expectations," used when institutions and people expect and require less from underserved communities. There is a soft bigotry to low expectations -- we should set reasonable expectations for all students, regardless of background. I worry, though, that Oregon has swung too far towards overly prescriptive, onerous requirements based on the same illusion peddled by No Child Left Behind, that if we simply expect universal student success, it will come.

I worry that Oregon has embraced the hard bigotry of unreachable expectations. Not only does Oregon's overall graduation rate lag behind most of the country, but our graduation rates for underserved students are even lower. Alarmingly, these lower rates are correlated along racial and income lines.

This begs the question: who chose the right path, Iowa or Oregon? Even if you reject the comparison of graduation rates across states, the consequences are clear. In Iowa, only 9% of the students in the class of 2016 will not have a high school diploma. In Oregon, that number is 25% -- one in four students.

Who is benefiting from the Oregon system? Clearly not the 25% of students who didn't get a diploma last year -- nor those students' families or communities. They're being harmed -- and many of them already face significant barriers to their education, on top of the structural ones the state of Oregon has placed in front of them. Are the 75% of students earning a diploma somehow better served? Does an Oregon high school diploma somehow matter more in college or job applications than an Iowa diploma? I doubt it. Certainly the difference in value doesn't warrant the discrepancy in success. 

So, in 2018, I hope Oregon takes a look at the structural requirements of earning a high school diploma to decide if those requirements align with our goals and the best interests of our students. This isn't about improving graduation rates -- it's about acting in the best interest of students and refusing to further exacerbate and institutionalize the equity problems in our public education system.