New York

Wayback Wednesday: Decades of graduation inflation

Introducing a regular feature in which we take a look at the history of New York City’s schools.

The Gothamschools Time Machine

The chancellor makes a self-congratulatory announcement about a reduced dropout rate. But analysis by a watchdog organization, often critical of the chancellor’s leadership, says the real rate is much lower. On-the-ground reports from principals confirm the less impressive numbers. Statisticians express skepticism about double-digit improvements. And no one can seem to determine the best way to calculate graduation rates.

This story isn’t ripped from today’s headlines, although if you have read Nat Hentoff’s latest installment in the Village Voice, in part about the persistent unreliability of the city’s graduation data, you can be forgiven for thinking it might be. It’s actually from the New York Times of March 4, 1987:

In a self-congratulatory mood, the New York City Board of Education three weeks ago announced what it hailed as a major improvement in the dropout rate in the city’s schools, down to 30.7 percent. But the fanfare subsided when a respected educational group contended last week that a truer figure for the dropout rate in the last school year was 50.4 percent.

A startling statistic kept by the executive director of the board’s high schools division, Dr. Frank L. Smith Jr., added to the credibility of the higher figure, provided by the Educational Priorities Panel. …

The president of Columbia University’s Teachers College, P. Michael Timpane, also questioned the Board of Education’s 30.7 percent figure, which represents a decline in the dropout rate of 11.8 percentage points since 1984, when the rate was announced as 42.5 percent. ”For those figures to go down as fast as they did is hard to swallow,” he said. ”I think a sharp jump is very hard to believe and raises issues.”

At the heart of the difference between the views of the dropout rate is the way the figures are calculated.

To get the 30.7 percent figure, which is 4.6 percentage points lower than the board’s figure the year before, school officials counted all students in the ninth grade and above who dropped out during the 1985-86 school year and divided that figure into the student registration for those grades. Then, using a weighted average, they projected that rate forward for four years.

But the 30.7 percent figure, some educators contend, is misleading, in part because it does not include students who should be considered as dropouts. For example, students who fail in a city high school and leave to attend privately run programs to get a general equivalency diploma are not considered dropouts by the Board of Education.

In contrast, the Educational Priorities Panel – like Dr. Smith’s calculation for the class of students moving from the freshman to the senior year at Jefferson High – counted the number of students who started in the ninth grade and graduated four years later and calculated the percentage.

Increasingly, educators say that such a calculation is the most accurate measure of how a school system is managing to persuade disaffected students to stick it out to receive a high school diploma.

One thing truly has changed: the timeline for the release of graduation data. This article — and the graduation rate it describes — appeared in early March. Twenty-one years later, it’s August and we’re still waiting for graduation figures from 2007, even after the state told the Times last month that the data would be released by the end of July.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede